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Opinion The D.C. crime lab is in trouble — again

Guns in storage at the District of Columbia Department of Forensic Sciences on Sept. 24, 2019.
Guns in storage at the District of Columbia Department of Forensic Sciences on Sept. 24, 2019. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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“WHAT’S THE point of spending millions of dollars on a crime lab if people don’t trust its findings and won’t use it?” That is the question we posed in 2015 about the District’s Consolidated Forensic Laboratory; unfortunately, it is time to ask that question again. For the second time in six years, this once ballyhooed facility has run afoul of its national accreditation board and the lab’s director has been ousted. Not only will the problems end up costing D.C. taxpayers a lot of money, but the shadow over the lab’s integrity calls into question criminal convictions that depended on its scientific analysis.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced last week that the lab will cease all work on criminal investigations while a consultant conducts “a complete assessment” of the Department of Forensic Sciences. Analysis normally done by the agency, The Post’s Paul Duggan reported, will be contracted out to federal and private labs, and an interim director will try to restore the agency’s credibility. The moves follow a tortuous series of events in which the lab erroneously concluded that bullet casings found at the scenes of two fatal shootings were fired from the same gun and efforts were made to deny, minimize and cover up the errors. A panel of outside experts commissioned by the D.C. attorney general and the U.S. attorney concluded the agency had intentionally “misrepresented” its mistakes, writing that “such actions by management indicate a lack of adherence to core principles of integrity, ethics, and professional responsibilities.” The ANSI National Accreditation Board pulled the agency’s seal of approval, not just for ballistics work but for all analyses, including DNA and sexual assault evidence. Jenifer Smith, a former FBI agent with a PhD in chemistry who headed the agency since 2015, resigned. The District’s inspector general has launched a criminal investigation.

The events were reminiscent of 2015, when there was another change in leadership after the accreditation board ordered the lab to immediately suspend all DNA casework because of “insufficient and inadequate” procedures. In both instances, the red flag about potential problems was first raised by the U.S. attorney’s office, and the mayor suggested that “institutional tensions” between law enforcement and prosecutors and forensic scientists may have contributed to the lab’s problem. No doubt those tensions exist, but that’s no excuse for misconduct. When the lab — independent from law enforcement and the court system — opened in 2012 in a $220 million facility, it was hailed as bringing objective and state-of-the-art science to crime analysis. Its troubled history suggests that systemic issues with quality assurance, transparency and oversight need to be addressed.

It is more than a little worrisome to think how the work done by the lab may have influenced criminal proceedings. Were trials corrupted and defendants deprived of a fair process, as Katerina Semyonova of the D.C. Public Defender Service testified before a D.C. Council committee? Good that the D.C. attorney general has promised a robust post-conviction review of cases its office handled in which examiners from the lab conducted scientific analysis. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to answer our query about whether that office will also conduct a post-conviction review for cases it handled. Having flagged the problems, it shouldn’t have to be persuaded to do the necessary follow-up.

Read more:

Megan McArdle: Yes, more policing burdens disadvantaged communities. But it benefits them, too.

Channing D. Phillips: D.C. should not disregard misdemeanor crimes — but should keep focusing on rehabilitation programs

Letter to the Editor: High-crime neighborhoods need police reform, not police defunding

Radley Balko: How do we improve forensics?