You are charged with murder. You are innocent of the crime, yet you face life imprisonment. You don’t have the $50,000 cash it costs to get out of jail before your trial. You have no choice, so you just stay in jail. It will be a year before your trial starts. Meanwhile, you lose your job. You can’t support your family, so they are evicted. You can do nothing about it, just like everything else outside jail. Your car is repossessed. You can’t see your children. Your spouse stopped visiting you in jail. Your friends and family don’t know what to think, but people look at them differently since your arrest, too.
How’d You Get Here?
You are accused of using your own gun to shoot dead Mr. Doe, a man you’ve never seen or heard of before your arrest. You know your gun could not possibly have been used in any murder. No matter what happens in your case, your life will never be the same. Police got a warrant for you after the crime lab provided the crucial link between your gun and the killing of Mr. Doe.
The Truth Is On Your Side, Though, Right?
Your lawyer says the prosecutor offered you a “deal” to serve only 20 years, but only if you admit your guilt and sign a confession by 5:00 p.m. Friday. After that deadline, the prosecutor will withdraw the “deal” and will ask the jury for the maximum.
You insist to your lawyer you are innocent. Your lawyer wants to believe you. Your lawyer shows you a report from the crime lab expert. In the report, the expert says your gun most definitely was the gun used to kill Mr. Doe. You don’t have a witness like that, and the report further claims there is virtually no chance of a mistake using the techniques utilized in the lab. The report states that the lab is accredited by the most prestigious scientific institute in the United States. Your lawyer tells you that institute gave its seal of approval that the lab follows all the proper procedures to come up with valid results. You must decide within days whether to bet the rest of your life against how much a jury will believe the expert. The rest of your life depends upon the contents of that crime lab report.
Why Admit You Did What You Didn’t?
You can’t admit to killing someone you didn’t kill, right? Who would EVER do that?! You. You actually sign the confession, even though you didn’t do the crime. WHY???? You are terrified of life in prison and are grasping at straws. Before trial, you change your mind because you just can’t stand up in court and say you did such a terrible thing when it’s a lie. You almost did admit it, anyway!
What Happened At Trial
You go to trial. At trial, the key evidence to tie together all the other evidence is the testimony of the lab expert that your gun was the gun which fired the bullet which killed Mr. Doe. There was no other way to explain how that could have happened, so the jury finds you guilty and sentences you to life in prison.
What Didn’t Happen At Trial
Do you think it would have been important for the jury to know the expert’s opinion was disputed within the lab by his fellow experts? It happened, but it was never disclosed to your lawyer. Do you think it would have been helpful for the jury to know the experts in the lab debated whether the bullet was an exact match or totally excluded as a possible match? It happened, but it was never disclosed to your lawyer. Do you think it would have been helpful for the jury to know additional experiments were conducted on the gun, but those results were never recorded or reported? It happened, but it was never disclosed to your lawyer. Do you think it would have been helpful to the jury to know the consensus in the office was your gun was excluded as a match most of the time it was being considered by the lab personnel? It happened, but it was never disclosed to your lawyer.
None of these things were disclosed to you or your lawyer before or during the trial. In fact, the lab didn’t even provide the information to the prosecutor. The prosecutor, of course, couldn’t share the information with your lawyer.
Who Would EVER Think That Was Acceptable?
Does that scenario promote justice? Is discovering the truth a high priority in that situation? Do you consider that scenario a reasonable and fair administration of law?
Many people who work in crime labs see absolutely nothing wrong with that lab process, secreting of information contrary to their final report, withholding of information, and whatever outcome those practices create. In fact, they will fight tooth and nail for it to happen and continue.
Fact or Fiction?
The scenario described is not necessarily true to life, but it is playing out in real life in Washington, D.C..
The crime lab in D.C. had some serious flaws exposed, publicly sparred with the prosecutor about its problems, and its accreditation was suspended for a while before being lost entirely. There’s even a criminal investigation being conducted on the lab. Nonetheless, the lab personnel STILL defend their actions.
A report simply stating a reliable result cannot be obtained or analysis was inconclusive seems to be a problem for the lab. Such positions are perfectly valid scientifically. However, inconclusive results highly likely to favor the defense in criminal prosecutions because the burden of proof falls on the government; inconclusive results don’t move the burden one way or another. Thus, the lab’s position itself demonstrates the lab is not truly interested in impartial analysis. They are effectively eliminated from any claims of objectivity and scientific integrity. They are far from alone in their advocacy of “science” to serve prosecutors.
Adding to the injustice of the situation, at least one violent criminal may remain free to commit further violence every time the wrong person is prosecuted. This obvious problem seems lost in the mix when considering crime lab malfeasance. It’s the height of injustice: the innocent are punished for doing nothing wrong, and, necessarily, that action gives the guilty license to continue to harm.
We continue to have a severe problem with crime labs. Small steps won’t resolve the problem. Even simply removing them from being police employees is merely a step. True independence of crime labs is essential. Vigilant and vigorous scientific practices, transparency, and ethics are necessary to their work. We must continuously strive to eliminate anything which undermines the integrity of crime labs’ work. Justice for All depends upon it.