Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Forensic Science: Fraud and Error on the Rise

All across the United States, crime lab scandals have been making headlines. Not just in recent months, but for years. At the local level, this is generally perceived to be an isolated problem. The reality, however, is quite different. 

As explained in the new text Forensic Fraud: Evaluating Law Enforcement and Forensic Science Cultures in the Context of Examiner Misconduct (Elsevier, 2013), crime lab scandals related to forensic fraud and error are on the rise - worsening in the last few years. The result has been dozens of crime lab closures, tens of thousands of criminal cases thrown out and overturned, and millions of dollars in successful lawsuits against government agencies.
Forensic Fraud 
(Elsevier, 2013)

The subject remains sore and often forbidden within the forensic science community. Consequently, the frequency and conditions of its occurrence have not been researched, and incidents are regularly hidden from public scrutiny to maintain the reputations of those agencies and crime laboratories that have suffered its stain. As discussed in this new text (available in June), this is at least in part because those who have direct knowledge of forensic fraud also have a vested interest in keeping it from becoming public knowledge. 

There are a number of contributing factors: 

First, hiding or ignoring misconduct preserves the image of an examiner's agency or lab, and by extension their own reputation, out of concern for courtroom credibility and future employment prospects. 

Additionally, it must be understood that forensic practitioners are by definition involved in sensitive casework. As a function of their employment contracts, they may operate under strict confidentiality agreements or non-disclosure clauses that might preclude communication of any kind about active casework—especially that which reflects negatively on their employer. The fear of losing employment-related income (e.g., being fired), and any future employment prospects, is generally sufficient enough for most to avoid causing a breach, even when it is in the public interest. 

The majority of forensic scientists are also employed directly by police agencies or by crime labs associated with law enforcement and the prosecution. Consequently, open discussion and study of forensic fraud have long been considered a “third rail” in the forensic community. A brief explanation is necessary: the third rail is the method of providing electrical power to a railway, such as a mass transit system, by means of an exposed conductor. Anyone who touches the third rail is killed instantly by a surge of electricity. So it is with the issue of fraud. Such a discussion necessarily involves critical review of the actions and motives of law enforcement, prosecutors, and their scientific agents. These are not professional communities that are generally receptive of criticism or outside review, and they are frequently hostile to external or independent efforts involving either. Consequently, any forensic practitioner who raises these or related issues risks touching the third rail—being the object of hostility and derision within the law enforcement and government lab community, and committing career suicide in the process. This means not only the loss of employment, but also one’s friends, colleagues, and professional identity.

As a consequence of these and other related factors, the phenomenon of forensic fraud has remained a mystery ---- until now. The publication of Forensic Fraud represents the first real scientific effort to study and understand what happens when forensic scientists go bad and why - with realistic reforms. A more timely report on the state of forensic science is difficult to imagine.

In short, the research demonstrates that forensic fraud is not an isolated problem resulting from a few bad apples. Rather, it is most often the result of systemic and cultural failures, and arises primarily in association with law enforcement employed forensic personnel or those working for the prosecution. And when it is discovered, those involved are not generally fired, prosecuted, or otherwise punished - rather they are most often retained, perhaps transferred, or allowed to resign and move on to another agency where fraud can continue anew.

Forensic Fraud defines the nature of the problems in the forensic community; helps readers to understand the social contexts and personal motives that facilitate forensic fraud; provides informed strategies for mitigating forensic fraud; and ultimately seeks to keep the criminal justice system honest with itself and the public that it serves.

Some recent examples of forensic fraud, error, and other misconduct from just the past six months include the following:

1. Washington State Patrol Crime Lab
Among the most beleaguered crime lab systems in the nation at the moment, with a steady stream of scandals since 1999 (with the termination of Dr. John Brown for DNA related fraud), Lab Manager Kevin Fortney resigned his post this year while under investigation for fraud and error relating to multiple cases. 
Kevin Fortney
And it's only gotten worse since he left, with new revelations being uncovered every week. The Fortney scandal occurred while this lab system was only just healing from the fraud committed by former Lab Director Barry Logan and his subordinate Anne Marie Gordon.

2. Scottsdale Police Department Crime Lab
Scottsdale police crime lab criminalists, supervisors, and prosecutors have been arguing in court whether blood-alcohol evidence processed in the lab can trusted because of problems with equipment. They say it can. However, internal emails recently discovered to the defense paint a very different picture.

3. Onondaga County Crime Lab in Syracuse, NY
The fight between the Syracuse Police Department and the district attorney's office over who controls the Onondaga County crime lab reached a fever pitch this year, resulting in an investigation by the Inspector General's Office. No wrongdoing was uncovered at the lab, but tensions between the police department and the district attorney's office remain high.

4. Hinton Drug Lab in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
The Annie Dookhan scandal began unfolding in 2012. It involved dry-labbing in more than 30,000 cases, hundreds of cases overturned, and a crime 
Annie Dookhan
lab so bankrupt of scientific integrity and accountability at all levels of management that it had to be shut down. The investigation of the lab alone is still costing the state tens of millions. Though she confessed to investigators, she recently plead not guilty in court after being indicted for charges related to her many acts of fraud. 

This was far worse than the fraud committed by Debra Madden, which forced the closure of the San Francisco Police Department Crime Lab (and is only just now winding down after four longs years of dismissed cases, hidden evidence, and hypocrisy). Consequently, the Annie Dookhan scandal will go down as one of the worst in the history of the forensic sciences. 

5. Massachusetts State Police Crime Scene Services Section
Det. Lt. Kenneth F. Martin, commanding officer of the Crime Scene Services Section, was recently stripped of his command and reassigned when it was learned that he was moonlighting as a defense expert on local cases.

6. Canton-Stark County Crime Lab - Ohio
The Stark County Crime Lab has been plagued with problems for the past year. 
Michael Short
Primarily, these relate to the inability to keep a fraudulent scientist fired (criminalist Michael Short); and the improper hiring of an unqualified police officer as lab director (Rick Perez). This required the director's near immediate resignation. Currently, in part due to evidence backlogs that have come to light because of the recent leadership change, DNA testing has been halted at the lab. It is currently being outsourced to the BCI. 

7. Beckley Police Department - West Virginia
Gabriella Brown
In the kind of case that is becoming all too common in the forensic sciences (see Sonja Farak, below), Gabriella Brown, an evidence technician, was charged with stealing drugs from the evidence locker she was in charge of. She was a civilian employee of the PD, and also holds an online Masters degree in Forensic Science from Marshall University. She recently plead guilty and was sentenced to four years probation.

8. Massachusetts State Drug Lab - Amherst
Sonja Farak, a forensic chemist, was recently indicted for stealing drugs and otherwise tampering with evidence at the state drug lab in Amherst, Massachusetts. The case is ongoing.

9. California State Crime Lab - Ripon
Hermon Brown, a criminalist, was recently convicted of embezzlement in relation to the theft of methamphetamine and cocaine from his lab. He was skimming from the drugs submitted by law enforcement, which alters weights and related charges. The fraud comes from misreporting the true weights in logbooks and reports. His fraud compromised dozens of local trials where he was scheduled to testify. After a couple of years waiting trial, he plead out and took 16 months of jail time.