Despite growing reliance on forensics, crime lab regulation is thin

3:14 p.m Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 Local
Jay Janner
Boxes of drugs and drug paraphernalia are stacked on the floor of the chemistry vault cabinet at the Austin Police Department’s Forensic Science Laboratory in 2013.

Despite their high-stakes work for the criminal justice system — from convicting the guilty to exonerating the innocent — forensic labs are surprisingly underregulated.

While the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods recommends best practices and protocols, neither it nor the National Institute of Standards and Technology can enforce them. The FBI ensures labs handle data correctly to access the agency’s vast DNA identification database, but it doesn’t check technical lab work. Texas requires public forensic labs to be accredited for their findings to be used in court, but beyond that demands no standards.

Though many forensic examiners can be certified, it is voluntary. A 2013 survey of Texas public labs found 13 percent had obtained the certification. For DNA examiners, it was only 5 percent. (Texas will require state licensure for several of the disciplines starting in 2019.)

RELATED: Austin crime lab bucked DNA standard for years, yet still got passing grades

Accreditation requires lab analysts to pass regular proficiency tests, but there is no rule on how demanding the tests are, says John Butler, a forensic science expert at national standards institute. Techs often are asked only to demonstrate the most basic skills, says Erin Murphy, a New York University law professor and author of “Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA.”

Once a lab hires a forensic examiner, it can take a year to fully train him or her. In some cases, deficiencies have been overlooked in the name of cost and production.

Technician Jonathan Salvador was caught faking a result in the Department of Public Safety’s forensic lab in Houston in 2012. Texas Forensic Science Commission examiners later discovered he’d been promoted despite “struggl(ing) with corrections and an overall understanding of the chemistry, especially in difficult cases.” Supervisors hesitated to remove him because it would mean others would have to pick up his work.

That leaves accreditation audits up to the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Lab Accreditation Board, which critics say is inadequate for the task. The organization doesn’t test the quality of a lab’s work — only that it has protocols and that they are followed, Butler said. The examinations aren’t random or unannounced either, said Murphy, which makes them less rigorous than, say, spot inspections at restaurants.

The accreditation board’s vice president, Pamela Sale, didn’t respond to phone or email messages seeking comment. She recently told the Texas Forensic Science Commission newer audits would provide a thorough scientific review of lab’s analysis methods.

The Austin lab’s 2010 accreditation report hints at problems only in retrospect. Auditors noted several lab workers and supervisors didn’t have the recommended education — a deficiency identified in earlier audits.

Yet that didn’t hinder the facility’s accreditation, which in turn appears to have favorably predisposed others. Austin examiners testified in court the rigorous audit process guaranteed accuracy. Other organizations besides the lab accreditation board surveyed Austin’s work in recent years; none noted the flaws in its methods.

“It was readily apparent that the laboratory and its staff upheld the high standards of accreditation,” the Major Cities Chiefs Association reported after a February 2016 visit — three months before a visit by the Texas Forensic Science Commission revealed fundamental flaws.

Former Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who became Houston’s police chief in November, said he depended on the outside reviews to identify and correct concerns he’d received about the facility. That the reviews came back clean, he said, leaves him skeptical of the oversight.

“The systems in place that were fully utilized by people who were trying to do their due diligence by having numerous audits didn’t identify any issues,” the former chief said in an interview. “My question is: What should they have found, and why wasn’t it found?”

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