Jewish World Review June 12, 2003 / 12 Iyar, 5763

Cyril H. Wecht

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Government DNA tests are ruining lives | Recent discussions concerning the identification of Laci Peterson and the prospective need to determine if any fragments of human tissue found at bombed-out sites in Iraq are those of Saddam Hussein have once again focused attention on the significance of DNA testing. It is assumed that such analyses will be performed expeditiously by experienced, competent specialists at top-level accredited forensic science laboratories.

While this expectation is realistic in high-profile cases such as these, the actual processing of DNA tests throughout the United States in non-extraordinary, routine cases is quite a different matter, and innocent lives hang in the balance.

With few exceptions, non-commercial, governmentally related forensic science labs ("crime labs") are overwhelmingly backlogged with requests from law-enforcement agencies, coroner and medical examiner offices, and other appropriate submitting entities for DNA tests. The deficiencies of personnel, space and equipment in forensic science labs often lead to shoddy practices and erroneous test results, as recently exemplified by the horrendous problems uncovered at the Houston Police Department DNA lab.

The problem is so significant that the Houston police chief requested the Texas Department of Public Safety to purge from its DNA database all cases examined by the HPD crime lab, which would also result in their removal from the national database of DNA evidence used to solve murders, rapes and other crimes. Seventeen of the cases called into question as a result of the lab's poor management and improper procedures involve defendants who are currently on death row awaiting execution.

Similar problems of an equally disturbing nature have been documented in DNA labs in several other jurisdictions, including Oklahoma, Arizona, Maryland, Illinois and Montana, all of which have resulted in the prolonged incarceration of innocent people.

Recently, the Justice Department's inspector general broadened an investigation, which was originally limited to alleged wrongdoing by a forensic technician, to review the practices of the FBI lab unit that analyzes DNA in hundreds of crime-related cases each year. Criminal defense lawyers will now be challenging the national database and other DNA evidence in cases involving the FBI lab.

There can be little doubt in the minds of trained, experienced forensic scientists that testing defects, backlog pressures, inadequately qualified personnel, and prosecutorial bias exist in many other DNA labs even though they have not yet been uncovered and publicly reported.

Meanwhile, quite amazingly, many state leaders have hesitated to acknowledge and attempt to correct these problems. Even members of the Texas legislature, who recently ended their session, departed Austin without addressing the problems uncovered at the Houston lab and, more recently, in Fort Worth. As expected, as states face large budget deficits, the lack of adequate funding remains a major factor.

Recently, President Bush proposed the "Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology" initiative, which calls for a commitment of $1 billion over the next five years. This is a welcome beginning, but by no means either an immediate or long-term solution. There are many more corrective measures to be undertaken, including certification/accreditation of all DNA labs, national standards for technical personnel, adequate funding for more personnel and equipment, and autonomous administration of forensic science labs (i.e., removal from the jurisdiction and control of both police departments and prosecutors' offices).

Until these glaring deficiencies are identified, objectively reviewed, and carefully corrected, society cannot expect that justice will be served.

More than three years ago in Illinois, these and other concerns led then-Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, to declare a freeze on executions in that state. After DNA results had led to a number of death row exonerations in Illinois, Ryan acknowledged that the death penalty system was "broken" and that reforms, including those involving access to accurate DNA testing, must be put in place before executions could continue. Recently, his successor, Democratic Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, announced that he would continue this freeze until he could be certain that recommended legislative reforms would significantly minimize the possibility that an innocent life would be taken at the hands of the state.

Although the politically courageous decisions made by these men stand out, the problems that caused them to take this wise step are not unique to Illinois.

State lawmakers should carefully scrutinize DNA labs that use inferior testing methods that lead to inaccurate results. An immediate freeze on executions is essential until scrupulous federal and state reviews of all DNA labs have been accomplished. This is the only just way to proceed. Close attention to this critical problem will not only lower the risk of executing innocent people, it will also facilitate the capture and conviction of the guilty.

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Cyril H. Wecht is past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services