The D.C. crime lab is resuming limited DNA testing this week but will continue to send more-complicated cases for outside testing as it recovers from a nearly 10-month suspension, officials said.
The District lab halted DNA forensic testing in April amid questions about the integrity and independence of advanced DNA analysis at the lab, mirroring concerns at labs across the country. The $220 million D.C. Consolidated Forensic Laboratory was barely three years old at the time and was touted as a model government crime lab run independently of police or prosecutors’ control.
The lab expects to resume DNA testing in stages, starting with sex assault kits, then possibly samples from felony gun cases and homicides cases, said Jenifer A.L. Smith, the new director of the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences. The lab will continue to outsource more DNA work than before the suspension until its skills improve.
DNA analysis is a key lab function and accounted for 15 percent of the lab’s operations last year, behind firearm and fingerprint analysis, lab officials said.
Smith is expected to testify Thursday before the D.C. Council about changes that enabled the restart.
The city has spent $1 million in contingency funds to outsource DNA examinations and make other improvements since a national accrediting group found that analysts at the lab were “not competent and were using inadequate procedures.” The administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ordered the suspension.
It is not clear how much ongoing outsourcing will cost. The Forensic Sciences Department was approved for $16.2 million in District and federal funding in 2015 and has received an additional $8 million to reduce backlogs in DNA, fingerprint and firearm examinations, the agency said.
U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips, whose office alerted city officials to lab errors, said in a statement that it “is looking forward to working with [DFS] in cases involving DNA analysis” and has “worked closely” with Smith and her agency since she took over in May.
Smith said the lab has slashed DNA testing turnaround times and paid for new training and equipment that will make it one of the first in the nation to employ new software — called STRmix — that untangles complex mixtures of DNA from multiple people at crime scenes.
Problems with subjective human interpretations of such mixtures triggered the lab’s troubles and confront the entire forensic field, Smith said.
“I think the whole community is actually facing this issue right now. We just happened to be one of the first to, perhaps, fall,” said Smith, a retired FBI special agent who formerly headed the FBI’s DNA laboratory and the CIA’s biological technology center. With the changes, Smith said, “It’s all much better for the city. I think we would all agree we are in a much better place.”
The restart was authorized Feb. 18 by Deputy Mayor Kevin A. Donahue after the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board said the lab was ready to resume work. The lab spent last week uploading previously analyzed DNA profiles and preparing to test new cases.
Since October 2014, outside experts retained by Phillips’s office to look at DNA examinations by the D.C. lab in criminal cases since 2012 came to different conclusions about how results should be interpreted in at least 35 percent of the total 135 District cases reviewed to date, according to a summary released by his office.
Prosecutors have notified defendants in all 48 of the cases that were flagged and said they have not found any evidence to suggest any wrongful conviction, nor acted to dismiss any cases.
Prosecutors also paid to send DNA evidence to private labs but said they could not readily calculate that cost. The U.S. attorney’s office estimated that it requested DNA testing in 25 percent more cases in 2015 than in 2014, 500 compared with 395, sending most to outside labs.
In her interview, Smith said the lab remains committed to quality science and transparency. She said that the city decided to replace the lab’s leadership and that she realigned the lab internally to work more closely with law enforcement to respond to crime trends.
Smith said the lab will allow prosecutors and others to have direct access to analysts to check the status of testing. That direct access previously had been barred with the intent of insulating analysts from information that might bias their work before they issue their reports.
The District also recently modified legislation that initially transferred civilian personnel and funds from police to the Department of Forensic Sciences to, among other things, allow the lab to pay experienced D.C. police retirees for their work without affecting their pensions.
“One of the visions was to be independent, but not isolated from our customers. . . . You have to understand where their priorities are, and that includes the citizens,” as homicides “go up and down and robberies increase,” Smith said. Before, “there was a clear detachment, in the name of independence,” in which she said lab managers limited communications with law enforcement as well as internally to the detriment of all.