Prince George’s County police suspended an employee and are conducting a review of the department’s DNA lab after learning that the employee accredited work at a Texas facility that later had to be shut down.
The ongoing county review uncovered neglected DNA profiles that should have been entered into a national database, lags in notifying investigators of DNA profile matches and the use of outdated methods to calculate the individuality of profiles. As of late last week, the lapses identified did not appear to have affected any prosecutions or convictions, county Police Chief Hank Stawinski said.
Stawinski ordered the review of county lab operations in November and said the department suspended an employee within a day of launching the probe. The county employee also serves as a national accreditor in lab audits. Stawinski said he has alerted six other law enforcement agencies audited by the employee to scrutinize their lab operations.
“We realized we had an issue and we took action” in the county, Stawinski said. “At this point, we have no instance where these administrative failings have led to a place where we could have prevented violent crime from occurring, and we don’t have anyone innocent locked up in jail.”
Police would not name the suspended lab employee, citing Maryland state personnel law. Individuals familiar with the inquiry identified her as Lynnett Redhead, who has been in charge of the DNA lab since 2007. Her attorney confirmed she is on paid administrative leave.
“My client maintains that she did everything that was appropriate, up to the standard of care and up to the industry standards,” said James Ellison, Redhead’s attorney.
Ellison said he and Redhead have not been told by the police department what the department’s specific concerns are and could not respond to them directly.
Police said the main administrative problems they found — after bringing in state and FBI officials — so far affect 19 of about 4,200 cases. The lab remains in operation after outside inspections.
In the course of its inquiry, the department also found unprocessed evidence that might generate new DNA profiles and benefit homicide cases dating to 2005, Stawinski said.
The comprehensive review comes as a national commission on forensic science grapples with quality assurance and with court testimony in the wake of DNA exonerations and police lab closures.
The shutdown of the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab last year prompted the investigation in Prince George’s after the county learned its employee gave the Austin lab passing marks while serving as auditor for the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board, Stawinski said.
A state accrediting body for Texas later discovered employees in Austin were using outdated statistical and scientific methods to analyze DNA, had contaminated evidence and lacked proper training, according to local news reports. Austin police closed the lab in June.
Ellison said Redhead was not the only person involved in accrediting the lab in Austin.
“It’s a process that involves multiple people,” Ellison said of his client. “She was very minimal in that accreditation process.”
Officials with the accreditation board were not available for comment Friday, according to a woman who answered the organization’s phone.
During the first 150 days of the internal investigation in Prince George’s, the department has found three primary concerns.
DNA profiles collected in at least four homicide cases weren’t entered into a national database designed to identify links to other investigations.
In other instances, DNA profiles were entered into the national database and generated potential suspects in 12 burglary, sexual assault and homicide cases. But there was a lag in telling police investigators that a match had been spotted — a problem that federal auditors had told the lab to fix in a 2010 audit. Instead of notifying investigations within the 30-day time frame that the federal government advises, the most recent tardy notifications discovered went out between several months to eight years after matches were flagged.
Analysts also have been found to be using outdated calculations to determine how likely it was that DNA collected from a scene could have come from someone other than a suspect. The outdated calculations were present in three cases that have gone through court, Stawinski said, all sexual assault cases that resulted in two convictions and one plea. In all three cases, the older calculations still generated statistically sound results, and using the new formula would not have changed the identifications, Stawinski said.
John Erzen, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office, said the police department alerted prosecutors of the investigation into the lab. As of Friday, prosecutors have not had to notify any defense attorney of new evidence that would be favorable to a defendant.
“We have not received the results or the conclusions of the investigation,” Erzen said. “We have not had to notify anyone of anyone of any issues.”
It’s unclear when the review of the lab’s work will be complete, but Stawinski said the administrative concerns have been fixed.
“We discovered these shortcomings because we chose to look for them,” Stawinski said.
The chief also said the department’s “science is sound” and stressed that the problems uncovered have been administrative. “I’m troubled that this occurred, but I promise the public and the community that these problems have been fixed and we will make sure they don’t repeat themselves in the future.”
The county’s lab has been previously rebuked for at least one of the same administrative weaknesses occurring now.
In 2010, the U.S. Justice Department Office of the Inspector General released results of a routine audit that found the Prince George’s lab, while generally in compliance with industry standards, had some problems.
The audit report said the lab was storing DNA evidence in an unlocked freezer, leaving material susceptible to tampering, a practice that also had been called out by a 2008 audit.
The 2010 audit also found that 19 of 100 DNA profiles inspectors reviewed should not have been entered into the national database for various reasons. The lab also failed to confirm three DNA matches within the standard 30-day period and in three cases did not notify investigators of matches in a timely manner.
“We believe that the Laboratory’s delay in its confirmation of the matches are in violation of NDIS procedures, and we are concerned that its delay in notifying investigators in a timely manner could potentially lead to the suspected perpetrator committing additional crimes,” the 2010 inspector general’s report stated.
The problems flagged in the federal audit were fixed, according to the report and a letter from the county responding to the audit.
Lawrence Kobilinsky, professor of forensic science and science department chairman at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that managing a lab that is efficient and thorough is just as important as ensuring analysts produce scientifically sound and accurate results.
“If you don’t do things in a timely way, you slow things down and you give people a chance to evade police detection,” Kobilinsky said. “Burglars especially. They’re the king of recidivists. One may be the reason for 20 and 30 cases. You take one off the street, and all the sudden the burglary rate goes down.”