D.C. Crime Lab: An Experiment in Forensic Science (Second of Two Parts)

Firearms analysts keep a "reference library" of bullets to match bullets recovered from crime scenes.

by / November 27, 2012

The new crime lab in the District of Columbia is full of high-tech equipment. On the second floor in firearms analysis, for example, a bullet recovery tank helps forensic scientists create model bullets to try and match those from the more than 2,300 guns that District police recover each year.

It works like this: a scientist shoots a recovered gun into a tank of water. The water slows down the bullet, so what emerges from the tank is a pristine sample of a bullet coming out of the gun, but without any of the effects of an impact. If the bullet from a crime scene matches the bullet from the tank, the scientist can tell the police that the recovered gun fired the recovered bullet.

Next door in the firing range, analysts shoot recovered firearms to test distances, potentially disproving a suspect’s testimony. If, for instance, a suspect testifies that there was a struggle and he shot in self-defense at a close range, the analyst can shoot the recovered gun at the range the suspect reported, and see if the markings match the wounds on the victim.

It’s a $210 million facility, more than 10 years in the works. Dr. Max Houck, the director of the D.C. Department of Forensic Science, talks about it in grand terms. "We have the potential," he says, "to act as an example that a public, independent laboratory can function as a public good."

Such enthusiasm might be understandable for the head of a new installation like this, but it’s rare right now among crime lab directors anywhere in America. They have watched their profession go through serious turbulence in the last few years. Most recently, a crime lab chemist in Massachusetts confessed to falsifying drug test results and forging other analysts’ signatures on lab documents to speed up evidence testing. A report issued by the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 questioned the entire underpinning of many established forensic science techniques.

While morale in the field is generally low, D.C. is aiming high. Its Department of Forensic Science, the city’s newest agency, is the first in the country to incorporate many of the Academy’s recommendations. Staffed solely by civilian scientists, it will take over crime scene investigation from the city’s beleaguered Police Department and bring DNA testing back into the District. Until this October, DNA testing had been outsourced to a lab in Lorton, Virginia, causing a major backlog in rape kit analysis. At its worst, the backlog in rape kits extended more than three years, according to testimony from a rape crisis counselor in front of the D.C. Council Judiciary Committee.

"When I talk to other forensic scientists about the new department," says Houck, "they become visibly excited at the prospect of a jurisdiction finally 'getting it right.'"

All this was made possible by legislation that passed the D.C. Council last year, promoted by Councilmember Phil Mendelson. "The public in general does not appreciate how much in the dark ages forensic science is and the general impression is that forensics is what you see on T.V.," says Mendelson. "We’re fortunate that we have both the legislation creating the new agency and the new lab—the two together have put us in position where the District will be at the forefront (of forensic science)."

Learning from past mistakes

Read part one of this series

The District is no stranger to problems with faulty forensic evidence. In 2010, Donald E. Gates was exonerated after serving 28 years in prison for a rape and murder in Washington’s Rock Creek Park that he did not commit. He was convicted in 1982 in D.C. Superior Court based on hair evidence found on the victim’s body, which an FBI analyst testified was "microscopically indistinguishable" from Gates’ hair.

But hair fiber analysis was later shown to be faulty. According to the National Academy of Sciences report, hair analysis is only conclusive enough to show that a hair belongs to someone with certain characteristics. It can’t be used to identify a specific person. That finding led to Gates’ exoneration and is leading the D.C. lab to rethink how it characterizes hair and fiber evidence.

"Hair examinations have a place in forensic science," says Houck, "but they cannot be used to identify someone and should not be characterized as such, either by scientists or by attorneys."

The same year that Gates was exonerated, a consultant to the D.C. Police Department discovered that the roadside testing equipment used by police officers to detect alcohol on a driver’s breath had not been properly calibrated and was issuing inflated blood alcohol content readings. At least 400 cases were identified by the District attorney general’s office as potentially involving incorrect breath tests, and 50 people challenged their cases in court. Two people were exonerated.

Talks about creating a forensic science agency were in the works years before the problems with the breath tests emerged, but they added to the need for the department, says Mendelson. The legislation creating the agency specifically directs the Department of Forensic Sciences to oversee the calibration of the breath tests, and the department has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to calibrate the testing equipment.

An independent lab

Traditionally, states and other jurisdictions have kept crime labs tied to the police or the prosecutor’s office both for logistical and budgetary reasons. It’s easier for police officers to drop off evidence if the crime lab is in the same building as the police department, says Jessica Gabel, assistant professor of law at Georgia State University. And it’s easier for states to allocate funding to law enforcement agencies and then have them disperse money to the crime labs.

But that closeness costs labs in other ways. "Crime labs don’t get evidence in a vacuum," says Gabel. "They hear that someone’s killed a child, and the pressure’s on (to identify the killer)."

The closeness between crime labs and police can also open labs up to harsh criticism, says Mendelson. "If the crime lab is within the police department, defense attorneys could say to an analyst, ‘well, you work for law enforcement, you’re just proving the police officer’s case.’ It’s better for the justice system when forensic analysis is done by a separate agency."

A few states, including Virginia and Rhode Island, do operate their crime labs separately from law enforcement. But those states have always been seen as exceptions to standard practice. Now, Houck believes, D.C.’s civilian-led crime lab can point the way to similar changes in crime labs across the country.

"We need a national strategy on forensic science," he says. "Our strategy can’t simply be more money and neither can it be, ‘let’s hope we don’t screw up.’ Here, we are running the agency as a science-based organization and as a peer with other agencies like the medical examiner or law enforcement with the focus really being on the science."

Reprint courtesy of
Stateline, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

Maggie Clark, Stateline Stateline.org staff writer

Stateline.org staff writer