Friday, August 1, 2014

Taking credit where credit wasn't due

Michael Phillips was arrested for the 1990 rape of a 16-year-old girl. Mr. Phillips, who maintained his innocence, entered into a plea agreement on the advice of his attorney after the white victim identified Mr. Phillips, a black man, in a photo line-up.

Mr. Phillips served 12 years in prison and then had to register as a sex offender after his release. As a result of not complying with the registration requirements he eventually went back to jail for another six months.

Earlier this year the DNA evidence in that rape case was tested - but not at Mr. Phillips' request. The kit was tested at the behest of the Dallas County DA's Office. The results of that test exonerated Mr. Phillips.

But why was the DA's Office testing a rape kit that had set on a shelf for more than two decades? Why were they testing a rape kit when the man convicted of the crime didn't request it?

Dallas County DA Craig Watkins would like you to believe that this was an incident in which his Conviction Integrity Unit was doing its job in making certain that no one was convicted of a crime they didn't commit. But that's not the reason the rape kit was tested.

You see Dallas County has a serious problem with its crime lab. Forensic work in Dallas County is performed by the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences. And SWIFS doesn't have a particularly good track record when it comes to DNA testing.

I have linked to a copy of an audit performed by the US Department of Justice in 2009 that paints a very disturbing picture of the crime lab.

Here is an excerpt from the report on the lab's compliance with CODIS protocols in the DNA section:
In our sample of 103 profiles, 2 profiles were inaccurate and 18 profiles were deleted from NDIS because they were unallowable, incomplete, or missing, and because of insufficient record retention, 15 of the Laboratory's files did not have sufficient evidence to determine if the profiles were obtained from a crime scene. The Laboratory deleted these 35 profiles from NDIS. The remaining 68 profiles we reviewed were complete, accurate, and allowable for inclusion in NDIS. However, 58 of the 103 profiles in our sample are not searchable at NDIS because they contain 9 or less core loci rather than the minimum of 10 loci required to be searchable at NDIS.4 Prior to January 2009, the Laboratory only attempted the analysis of 13 loci on forensic samples that did not have a standard for comparison, but in January 2009, the Laboratory began attempting the analysis of 13 core loci. However, 11 (30 percent) of the 37 samples analyzed between January 1, 2009, and May 13, 2009, contained less than 13 loci. The CODlS Administrator explained that it could be a matter of timing if the profile was run prior to January 1, 2009, or 13 loci were not run either because a suspect profile had already been developed for comparison or some of the sample was preserved for later use.
If this is the best that SWIFS can do, then Dallas County is in serious trouble. This, unfortunately, seems to be par for the course for crime labs run by and for law enforcement. These labs aren't meant to be independent. They are meant to generate evidence that the state can use against those accused of criminal acts. This mission encourages sloppiness and it encourages analysts to err on the side of law enforcement when making close calls.

The system is broken and it can't be fixed.


Anonymous said...

The official report on this exoneration is available through the University of Michigan Law School website ( The report presents a detailed description of the design and implementation of the project that is very different from what you have described in your post. According to the report, the project was conceived by Professor Samuel Gross (U. Michigan Law School and the National Registry of Exonerations). Implementation of the project involved a process of case review and selection carried out in large part by Professor Gross and Professor Colin Starger (University of Baltimore Law School), whose background includes several years as a staff attorney with the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Carduzo School of Law where he was involved with litigating claims of innocence. The authors of the project report include Professor Gross and Professor Starger. Given that Professor Gross and Professor Starger would appear to be objective and knowledgeable regarding the circumstances of the project, it is not clear why the description of the project in your post would differ so greatly from theirs. Surely, you aren't accusing them of lying in their report?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, this embarrassing revelation will probably deter the Dallas County DA's Office from pursuing the dozens of other wrongful convictions that this crime lab knows about or contributed to. The less that is known about the shoddy work of the lab (to the public), the longer the innocent will be jailed. The perception of science is all that this DA is concerned about.

Anonymous said...

To anoymous 8:37 am-

Mr. Kennedy wasn't accusing them of lying, just that the reasoning behind the "systematic DNA testing" was not as straightforward and logical as presented by the highly political Dallas County DAs Office.

For example, why did they start with the 1990 cases? Couldn't they have started from the 2000, or 2010 cases? Why not start with the 2014 cases and work backwards? Why not start with the cases that have relevance...TODAY.

For 181 of the 787 reported rapes with testable rape kits (found at SWIFS), a defendant was identified and arrested. Only 94 of those cases were further reviewed by this "systematic DNA testing". The remaining 606 unsolved cases with usable SAKs were not DNA tested. Why not? Surely unresolved sexual assault cases should be part of a "systematic DNA testing" project attempting to find the actual culprit.

And ultimately, for those people who aren't intellectually challenged with the the tl:dr recessive gene, ONLY 7 DNA TESTS WERE PERFORMED!!! Remember, they started with 787 DNA-testable SAKs. This project is stretching the definition of "systematic" just a wee bit.

Mr. Watkin's overzealous attempt to capture credit for something that he should, and promised, to have done from the time of his election is nothing short of appalling.

Mr. Kennedy, your work will be missed!

Anonymous said...

Not a peep out of Dallas County DAs Office. Go figure.
In fact, not a single exoneration in 2015 from the Dallas County CIU.
Were the remaining 606 unsolved cases with usable Sexual Assault Kits ever DNA tested?

Priorities, wow.