Audit details crime lab failings

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's crime lab suffers from inadequate funding, spotty recordkeeping and broken equipment, according to an independent audit of the embattled facility released by the Police Department yesterday.

The report, which the Police Department initially refused to release to the public, found that the lab was inadequately staffed, equipment to analyze narcotics had long been out of order, faulty paperwork sometimes made it difficult to establish a chain of custody for evidence, and evidence was stored in rooms that were too warm, which could cause it to degrade.

In an interview, the lab's new director, Francis Chiafari, said the audit is guiding a host of reforms and upgrades, including repairs to equipment and a door that wouldn't close. He said he made a request yesterday for 12 more employees to collect evidence at crime scenes.

Patrick Kent, chief of the public defender's forensics unit, said the audit exposes serious deficiencies in the lab's resources and procedures.

"This is a lab that simply does not have the financial support needed to perform its job competently and reliably," Kent said. "No proper restrictions on people who enter and exit. They can't even maintain the proper temperature to not have a loss of DNA evidence. These are very basic requirements."

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III requested the review, conducted by the industry's accreditation board, after The Baltimore Sun reported last year on problems in the lab's DNA section, including contamination of samples by lab technicians and cases in which the lab found DNA matches to convicted felons on crime scene evidence but did not inform detectives, prosecutors or defense attorneys.

Those issues led attorneys to bring up problems with the lab in arguing their clients' cases, but Kent said it's too early to tell whether the revelations in the audit will reverberate in the courtroom.

"I'm not in a position to note the seriousness and scope," Kent said. "Some of the issues being presented seem to be a matter of fixing some items, but what isn't being said is that a large volume of cases went through the lab while these problems existed, which potentially has a significant impact."

Crime labs nationwide are under assault from defense attorneys who question whether there's really "science" behind "forensic science" - for example, labs across the country have had differing standards for analyzing fingerprints.

And this week The New York Times reported that the National Academy of Sciences is poised to release a report concluding that crime scene evidence is often handled by poorly trained technicians who then exaggerate their findings on the witness stand to serve the interests of the field that employs them: law enforcement.

In response to both national and local problems, Maryland's legislature passed a law that will regulate crime labs much like hospital labs. Those changes, however, won't go into effect until 2011.

Chiafari, Baltimore's new crime lab director, said he's already put new regulations concerning the handling of paperwork and DNA into effect. Other changes are awaiting approval.

Some fingerprint analysis, for instance, was only stored electronically. Now hard copies will be put in files, he said.

Case numbers will be automatically printed on forms.

To catch employee contamination of crime scene evidence, all objects will be swabbed for DNA before any other tests are performed, and no one will be allowed in the lab until they've provided the department with a sample of his DNA.

"My top priority is to make sure all of these remediations are implemented using the most effective means possible," Chiafari said. "My next priority is to do an audit myself internally to see where additional effort and resources are needed."

Kent also said that the audit from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board is only "the first step." Even after reading the report, he said, he can't assess the "true magnitude and scope" of the problems.

For instance, the auditors found that during tests of "single-source" DNA samples analysts found minor amounts of what could be DNA from other people. Kent said that would seem to suggest contamination.

But when asked about that criticism, Chiafari dismissed it as "noise" generated when the equipment is cranked up to extra-sensitive settings. The decision to release the audit from an outside accreditation team came weeks after the department's attorney, Mark H. Grimes, denied a request for it under the state's Public Information Act from The Sun. Grimes wrote that its release would be "contrary to the public interest."

In the weeks since, the department has faced mounting legal pressure to turn over the report, including the threat of subpoenas from the state public defender's office.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy is pleased that the report is being released, said her spokeswoman, Margaret T. Burns.

"It was needed to ensure full transparency to the public," Burns said.

deficiencies

An audit of Baltimore's crime lab found:

* A lack of funding to replace broken equipment used to analyze and identify narcotics, dispose of hazardous waste, train employees and fill 20 vacant positions

* In some instances, sloppy paperwork that omitted case numbers and quality assurance checks to track and secure evidence

* Poor building security

* Concerns that evidence was being stored in rooms that were too warm, which could cause it to degrade

online

Find more stories about the DNA lab at baltimoresun.com/dna

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