Crime Lab Closures Lead to Backlogs while Report Set to Criticize Widely Used Forensic Techniques

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By Admin on February 11, 2009 1:28 PM

The closure of crime labs in multiple states has created a backlog in criminal cases. At a time when crime labs are overloaded and unable to keep up, a report soon to be released from the National Academy of Sciences appears likely to critique the lack of science behind many long practiced forensic techniques.

Even before the financial crisis hit their budgets, state and local crime labs had problems.  The DNA section of the Houston Police Department Crime Lab had to be suspended in 2002, after an independent investigator found that lab analysts had skewed results to fit police theories in several cases.

Four months ago, as reported by the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit Police Department ceased all of its crime lab activities after an audit revealed a 10% error rate in ballistics tests. Now, unfortunately, the other crime labs in the state are under deluge. Crime lab work for Detroit is going to backlogged state labs. Other towns and cities within Michigan see the backlog at state labs and send their work to county labs also trying to keep up. One county sheriff told state lawmakers that they face an "Armageddon."

The Baltimore Sun reports that an audit of the Baltimore crime lab concluded that it suffers from under-staffing, long out of order equipment, faulty paperwork, and storage rooms causing evidence to degrade due to warmth.

Onto this mess of backlogs and questioned scientific competence comes an upcoming report, to be released this month by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), according to the New York Times. Congress asked the NAS to assess the state of forensic techniques in 2005. Those familiar with the report say it harshly criticizes often used identification techniques including fingerprinting, firearms identification and analysis of blood spatter, hair, handwriting and bite marks. It concludes with a recommendation that Congress create an agency to affirm the independence of forensic testing.

While Congress may or may not act on any NAS recommendations, it looks as if the NAS report will provide defense attorneys with additional ammunition to challenge the evidence coming through overstressed and sometimes discredited crime labs.