Monday, March 12, 2012

Indiana crime lab miscues cast doubt on convictions

There's a tempest a-brewing in Indiana following the release of a report by the Indiana Supreme Court stating that the state's crime lab reported incorrect results in 500 cases. A panel headed up by two judges from the Court of Appeals found five tests in which the substance reported by the lab wasn't even in the sample. The panel also found about 500 other instances in which the samples were inadequate for retesting or showed the presence of other chemicals.

The Court did not, however, address whether the test results from those samples would hold up in court.

Up until last summer, the Indiana University School of Medicine was conducting an audit of the state Department of Toxicology's lab. That's when the governor decided to take over the investigation and appointed a panel who neither heard nor saw anything about the lab that gave them reason to be alarmed.

Funny how that works, ain't it? Who can forget Governor Rick Perry's assault on the state's Forensic Sciences Commission once it looked like folks would find out the state killed an innocent man? Gov. Perry's mouthpiece, Williamson County DA, John Bradly (who's looking more and more like he's on the way out courtesy of the voters), ended the panel's investigation of the Cameron Willingham case before expert testimony would be heard casting serious doubts on the junk science used by two "arson investigators" during the investigation of the fire.

Of the 500 cases reviewed, 497 of the defendant pled guilty and 18 are still in jail.
Some people may have pleaded guilty based on bad lab test results, said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council. 
“Public defenders rely on those results,” he said. “You assume they are right.”Landis added that most public defenders and their clients don’t have the time, money or expertise to challenge lab results. 
“And until recently,” he said, “there was no reason to.”
Now while Mr. Landis is correct that most indigent defendants lack the resources to challenge the test results, he is wrong that public defenders lack the resources. It is the job of a defense attorney to defend his client vigorously. And that means not taking any piece of paper offered by the prosecutor as the gospel truth.

That piece of paper from the lab is nothing more than an allegation that something is what the crime lab says it is. It is no more or less credible than any other evidence that may be put on at trial.

Why didn't anyone file a discovery request for lab protocols? Why didn't anyone file a discovery request for the qualifications of the people performing the tests? Why didn't anyone file a discovery request for records of audits of the lab?

Is it because their clients were in custody and couldn't afford to post bail? Was it because it was easier to negotiate time-served-and-a-fine rather than fight the case? Was it because the public defender's office was under budgetary pressure to move cases? Or was it just because someone was too fucking lazy to do anything other than tell their client he needed to plead because of what was written on a piece of paper?

What happened in Indiana happens because we aren't doing our jobs. We aren't holding the state to their burden of proof. We aren't challenging scientific evidence at trial. We aren't getting the records for ourselves.

If we just accept the state's evidence at face value we are doing a disservice not only to our clients, but also to everyone else who might someday find themselves caught up in the criminal (in)justice system.

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