“INSUFFICIENT AND inadequate.” That biting assessment of the District’s crime lab by independent auditors puts to rest any suggestion that federal prosecutors overreacted when they stopped sending DNA evidence to the facility on the grounds that it was making serious mistakes. The finding also raises the questions of why officials in charge of the lab were so dismissive of prosecutors’ concerns and what that says about their ability to remedy the problems.
A national accreditation board commissioned by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to assess complaints raised by the U.S. Attorney’s Office ordered the Consolidated Forensic Laboratory to immediately halt all DNA casework after concluding that analysts “were not competent and were using inadequate procedures.” The findings of the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board were in keeping with results of a separate review by forensic experts brought in by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Lab officials, given 30 days to address the concerns about training, procedures and quality control, said they take the reviews “seriously” and will work “diligently” to make the necessary fixes.
But the U.S. Attorney’s Office had alerted officials in the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences to the issues last fall (the audit said problems had been flagged even earlier, in 2013) but they refused to even acknowledge the errors, much less make reforms. Indeed, forensics officials staunchly defended their work; Max M. Houck, director of the department, attributed any differences to the normal disagreements of interpretation that occur between scientific experts. Defenders of the lab even insinuated that prosecutors had an ulterior motive of wanting to impinge on the independence of the lab.
The work of this lab has a direct bearing on the fair administration of justice — who goes to jail and who goes free. Having invested a quarter-billion dollars in a state-of-the-art crime lab, District residents shouldn’t have to wonder about the competence of the work or the accuracy of the analysis. As Ms. Bowser said, the work must be “beyond reproach.” She has tapped Deputy City Administrator Kevin Donahue to oversee a top-to-bottom review; D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chairman of the judiciary committee, has called for an emergency meeting of all stakeholders. Among the questions that need to be answered: why it was federal prosecutors, and not city officials, who recognized the problems — and what would have happened if the feds hadn’t noticed.