Monday, February 23, 2009

Crime Labs, DNA, and Equal Protection

It's no secret that the science in our crime labs across the country is severely lacking. While it took a National Academy of Sciences report to put the issue back on the front pages, delays in processing cases have been documented for years, and the recession has made things worse. Not only are crime labs singled out more often for budget cuts in law enforcement, but the entire question of whether labs should even be a part of law enforcement is back on the table.

Crime laboratories around the country are grossly underfunded, lack a scientific foundation and are compromised by critical delays in analyzing physical evidence, according to a broad study of forensic techniques published Wednesday by the National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s premier scientific body.

Among its many criticisms, the study counted a backlog of 359,000 requests for forensic analysis in 2005, a 24 percent increase in delays since 2002. A survey of crime laboratories found 80 percent of them to be understaffed.

A new federal agency is needed to regulate these laboratories, standardize forensic techniques and pay for research, according to the report, which was financed by Congress in 2005.

The study recommends that an agency, to be called the National Institute of Forensic Science, be created and be independent of the Justice Department, which has traditionally been the nation’s primary forensics research agency. Crime laboratories should be managed separately from police departments to ensure that their findings are protected from bias, the report said.
Keeping forensics a real science requires removing the function of the crime lab from law enforcement. It's never made a lot of sense for these labs to function as an arm of law enforcement, given the adversarial nature of the results. Watch any episode of CSI or other television forensic drama and you'll see the possible conflicts of interest.

And now with word the Supreme Court is set to determine the constitutionality of DNA testing and its access, the issue of independence becomes more pressing.

They are among more than 200 people nationwide who were freed because DNA tests performed after their convictions showed they could not have committed the crimes.

And they now have joined civil rights groups, some current and former prosecutors, and a convicted Alaskan rapist to urge the Supreme Court to apply constitutional protections for the first time to what the prisoners' lawyers call "arguably the most important development in the history of forensic science: the advent of DNA testing."

They are opposed by victims rights groups; the vast majority of states, which have a patchwork of laws granting DNA access; and the federal government. The governments say that creating a constitutional right to the testing would infringe on states' rights, overwhelm them with frivolous demands and create an endless right of appeal for those convicted of the most violent crimes.

As it exists now, there are basically 50 different state laws regarding the where's, when's and how's of DNA testing. Some states allow post-conviction DNA testing, some don't; some allow defendant-sponsored tests at trial, others won't. Your chance of using science and being definitively found innocent (or guilty) is clearly not uniform throughout the country.

Given the near 100% accuracy of the testing, it's disappointing that victims rights groups and prosecutors would oppose a firm ruling in favor of uniformity in DNA testing. The "endless appeals" argument is an old canard, rendered largely obsolete by the Prison Litigation Reform Act and scores of other laws passed to deny defendants/inmates access to the courts. And it also begs the question: by opposing access, are you advocating uncertainty in criminal convictions?

We have the science now to be sure those who are convicted of the worst kinds of violent crimes are, in fact, guilty. What we need now is guidance by the court regarding access to the testing, and 100% uniformity in the procedures and laboratory work done throughout the country.

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