Tuesday, March 20, 2012

You can get the gold plaque for a few dollars more

We're accredited, you see. That means what comes out of our lab is reliable. We have strict quality control regimens and we verify all our results. You can bet that if our analyst tells you that sample indicates the driver was intoxicated or that the DNA matches your suspect, that the result will stand up in court.

Maybe that's what the lab director says, and maybe it isn't. But you can bet the analyst and the prosecutor will tell your jury more times than you can recall, that the crime lab was accredited.

To which my response is "so freaking what?" Mr. Marvin Schechter, an attorney from New York, wrote a memo about the fallacy of accreditation to the members of the New York State Commission on Forensic Science. The report is an eye-opener.

Who is it that accredits these crime labs? It's some body known as the American Society of Criminal Lab Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB). In Texas, the Department of Public Safety accredits crime labs - but only if they have already been accredited by a "recognized accrediting body."

North Carolina's State Bureau of Investigation crime lab was accredited by ASCLD/LAB. But that didn't do Gregory Taylor much good. He was convicted of killing a prostitute in 1993. In 2010 he was exonerated when it turned out that his blood wasn't found at the scene of the crime. Nor was it any comfort to Derrick Allen who was freed after serving over a decade in prison after it came to light that the lab reports were inaccurate.

Those incidents had no impact on the crime lab's accreditation, however.

In 2008, an analyst at the ASCLD/LAB-accredited San Francisco PD crime lab mixed up samples of DNA evidence in a homicide case. Instead of having her re-run the tests, the lab supervisor ordered her to change the labels on the tubes. And then, in 2010, there was the lab tech who took drug samples home for a little "confirmatory testing."

ASCLD/LAB promptly re-accredited the lab.

As Mr. Schechter notes in his memo:

ASCLD/LAB has been in existence for over 28 years, in which time they have managed to corner the market on forensic laboratory accreditation.  For all their  experience, however, the record shows that an inordinate amount of lab incidents occur at their accredited facilities.  In fact  ASCLD/LAB could more properly be described as  a product service organization which sells for a fee, a “seal of approval,” covering diverse laboratory  systems which laboratories can utilize to bolster their credibility through in-court testimony by technicians plus  ancillary services such as protection from outside inquiry, shielding of internal activities and where necessary, especially in the event of public condemnation, a spokesperson to buffer the laboratory from media inquiry.

Crime labs aren't accredited because they do such marvelous work. They are accredited because they keep their paperwork in order. So long as their paperwork is in order and so long as the check clears, ASCLD/LAB will continue to accredit crime labs - regardless of how bad the "science" actually is.

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