The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How many people were wrongly convicted because of D.C.'s dysfunctional crime lab?

Firearms are pictured in storage at the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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The D.C. Consolidated Forensic Laboratory opened in 2012 to much fanfare. At a cost of $220 million, the facility was set up to be independent from law enforcement and the court system. It promised to bring objective, state-of-the-art science to crime analysis. Just how miserably the lab failed to live up to those objectives was laid bare in a recent report that calls into question arrests, prosecutions and convictions that over the past decade relied on scientific analysis from the lab.

After concerns about the lab resulted in a loss of national accreditation in May, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) commissioned “a complete assessment” of the agency. The 157-page report by the Virginia-based SNA International consulting firm is damning. It turned up inadequately trained fingerprint and firearms examiners who had failed proficiency tests; a lack of internal controls; leadership failures within and above the agency and a culture that prioritized output over quality. The report recommended a top-to-bottom overhaul of the Department of Forensic Sciences but so dire were the findings that, The Post’s Emily Davies reported, D.C. deputy mayor for public safety and justice Chris Geldart said the city would have to determine whether it even wanted to bring some services back to the lab. Since the loss of accreditation, D.C. has been outsourcing testing.

SNA recommended there be a review of past criminal convictions. Ms. Bowser’s release of the report was accompanied with an order forming a committee — which will include representatives of the public defender service, the U.S. attorney’s office and the D.C. attorney general’s office — to implement the report’s recommendations, including the reexamination of cases dating back a decade that involved the lab’s firearms examination, latent fingerprint and digital evidence units. “Do I feel a sense of responsibility? Yes, absolutely,” said Mr. Geldart. “The District owns this responsibility.”

The mayor’s move is welcome but, for too long, her administration seemed to be in denial about the problems at the lab. When concerns were raised nearly two years ago by the offices of the U.S. Attorney and D.C. attorney general, the administration sloughed them off, at one point even blaming “institutional tensions” between law enforcement and prosecutors and forensic scientists. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, to his credit, made a public commitment in the spring to undertake a post-conviction review of cases involving his office and has taken steps to create a new unit to do the work. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office said it, too, is committed to a review of cases.

That people might have been wrongly arrested, prosecuted or convicted because of this dysfunctional agency should keep officials up at night. So should the thought of the pain that reopening cases will inflict upon the survivors and victims of crime. It’s important that the District get it right this time and commit the resources necessary to ensure a comprehensive review of past cases and accurate analysis of evidence of future cases.