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Our Forensic Leaders Have Failed Us, Part 2: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

The American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD) and its accreditation body, ASCLD/LAB (Laboratory Accreditation Board) have for some time held themselves out as the leaders in determining what is good and right in the world of forensic science. The election of Greg Matheson to lead ASCLD, the participation of ASCLD in shaping the Draft Legislation being floated for forensic reform, and the actions taken by Greg Matheson and others since they have come to believe that this Draft Legislation will become the law of the land are truly disturbing.

ASCLD claims on its website that it is

dedicated to providing excellence in forensic science through leadership and innovation. The purpose of the organization is to… assist the development of laboratory management principles and techniques; acquire, preserve and disseminate forensic based information… and to promote, encourage and maintain the highest standards of practice in the field.

What is puzzling is why ASCLD would elect Greg Matheson, a man who essentially allowed the LAPD crime lab to run unsupervised to the point that the ASCLD/LAB accreditation of his lab has been endangered and possibly should have been revoked.

ASCLD and ASCLD/LAB will likely argue that this is not the case, which brings me to my next point: would they even know?

New York State Police Trace Evidence Section

In April 2008, an ASCLD/LAB audit of the New York State Police Crime in Albany discovered anomalous test results in the work of State Police Forensic Scientist Garry Veeder. ASCLD/LAB issued three Level 1 Corrective Action Requests.

This kind of deficiency would have required that the lab have a plan to remedy Corrective Action Request items before the lab’s accreditation could be renewed. Or that the lab simply decide that they weren’t going to do those particular analyses anymore.

Garry Veeder was the only person at his lab who did the analyses in question. Within a few days, Veeder submitted his retirement papers, allowing the lab to simply remove those tests from the list of areas to be reaccredited. The lab was reaccredited on June 21, 2008

Fortunately, the New York State Inspector General decided to look into the matter further. They found that

  • Nearly a third of Veeder’s cases were incorrect, lacked supporting documentation, or could not be demonstrated as valid (Veeder had been in the Trace Section from 1995 to 2008).
  • Anthony Piscitelli, Veeder’s supervisor in the Trace Evidence Section from 1995 to 2003, approved proficiency tests for employees in which required tests had not been performed and the entries for those required tests had been left blank.
  • From 2003 to 2008, Veeder’s work was being reviewed by R. Michael Portzer. Portzer had failed a proficiency test years earlier and was not qualified to serve in this capacity.
  • The Trace Evidence Section was using equipment that was not authorized and the employees failed to maintain proper records for the unauthorized equipment.
  • Veeder admitted and that he had evaded detection in ASCLD/LAB audits since 1998.

Apparently none of these things was ever discovered by ASCLD/LAB over a period of 10 years.

San Francisco Crime Lab

San Francisco’s ASCLD/LAB accredited crime lab is getting the lion’s share of bad press right now thanks to problems with their narcotics lab, chain of custody issues, DNA evidence contamination, and recently a ruling against the local DA’s office blaming them for due process violations in light of the increasing number of problems being uncovered at the beleaguered lab.

A former narcotics criminalist is alleged to have stolen cocaine from evidence packages for personal use. The supervisor of the DNA section just resigned and his position will remain unfilled. An audit conducted by two other crime lab directors (not ASCLD/LAB) discovered serious, blatant chain of custody issues that allowed for the evidence tampering for which the former criminalist is now under arrest.

The problems at the San Francisco lab are so bad that the narcotics section has been permanently closed and some city officials have recommended closing the entire crime lab permanently.

However, in February, ASCLD/LAB extended San Francisco’s accreditation an extra 6 months.

The New York State Police Crime Lab and San Francisco Crime Lab are only two examples of the failures of ASCLD/LAB accreditation. Crime labs don’t go bad in weeks or months. These kind of systemic failures build upon themselves over years of people looking the other way. ASCLD/LAB accreditation relies too heavily on the self-reporting and good intentions of those who have too much to lose if they fall short.

Bad Leadership

Given the current atmosphere- the recommendations from the NAS Report… the fact that Congress commissioned the NAS Report in the first place… calls for a moratorium on the death penalty because of wrongful convictions due to bad verdicts, bad scientists, or sloppy science… the problems at crime labs in North Carolina, Illinois, Nebraska, Oklahoma, San Francisco, Houston, Detroit, Baltimore, the FBI lab, and other labs all over the country (and those are just some of the ones we know about now)- you would think that the leaders of ASCLD and similar organizations like the American Association of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) would want to set a good example- you know, lead- and work toward some of the well-intentioned and more reasonable recommendations of the NAS Committee.

Instead what we have gotten is push-back from the “leaders” of the forensic science community, the unsettlingly obnoxious Draft Legislation, and the even more disturbing actions of people like Greg Matheson once they saw what the Draft Legislation held.

How the Draft Legislation Came to Be

The Draft Legislation came about as a result of a few roundtable discussions between a couple of staffers from the Senate Judiciary Committee and a few organizations, including the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations (CFSO), which includes ASCLD, ASCLD/LAB, and AAFS, among others.

In their newsletter, ASCLD stated that

Forensic reform legislation will likely be passed this summer as a result of the recently released NAS report “Strengthing Forensic Science in the United States:A Path Forward”…

Chairman Pete Marone and the CFSO have made tremendous strides to influence the forensic reform legislation that is nearing introduction in Congress…

President-Elect Greg Matheson (California) will be representing ASCLD in future CFSO activities.

So instead of acknowledging the issues brought forward in the NAS Report and trying to improve on them, our dear leaders at ASCLD and the CFSO worked very, very hard to help produce the Draft Legislation that is so far off base that one DC lawyer who practices in front of the Supreme Court thought that the Draft Legislation was the wishful suggestion of the AAFS, not something that would actually come from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Bad Omens

The Draft Legislation, in its current form, would turn over decision making on forensic reform to groups such as ASCLD and AAFS. Would the leaders of ASCLD and AAFS be benevolent dictators over forensic reform? Would they take the necessary steps toward improving forensic science and building it into something that everyone could be proud of? Or would they continue to try to shut out opposing voices and keep trying to sweep the ugly parts under the rug?

The Draft Legislation was released on May 5, 2010. On June 3, 2010, Greg Matheson was part of a group of lab directors who led a successful motion to disband the California Crime Lab Task Force during a time when crime labs across California are experiencing one alarming scandal after another.

Why would crime lab directors like Greg Matheson move to disband task force that was created unanimously by California lawmakers in 2007? Why would these crime lab directors want to silence a task force that included defense attorneys and academic experts in its review of crime lab activities to report back to the legislature on how to improve upon the work of crime labs?

According the Sacramento Bee, the crime lab directors “are of the opinion that ‘we regulate ourselves just fine’” according to David Lynch, a Sacramento assistant public defender who was part of the task force and opposed the shut down.

And, although ASCLD and ASCLD/LAB insist that they are independent organizations, another point made by the lab directors in shutting down the task force was that “their own accreditation group provides sufficient oversight.”

Even more disturbing is that the crime lab directors, including Greg Matheson, led the move to disband the task force, according to the panel’s chairman who approved of the motion, because they “want to postpone any further discussion in the task force until [they] had the opportunity to see what Washington was proposing,” as if they didn’t already know.

So that’s the kind of decision making we can expect when things get turned over to Greg Matheson, president-elect of ASCLD. Exclusion of those who do not agree with him and who want more oversight and transparency of crime labs. More sweeping the ugly truths of forensic science under the rug. So much for protecting the public.

What I have not seen in any of the articles, depositions, or interviews from Greg Matheson and many others in similar positions are any references to concerns about the state of forensic science, the safety of those working in the field, or concern for the public who are at the mercy of forensic scientists and crime labs.

What they are very concerned about is who is in charge and who gets to call the shots. Their concerns are always the same: all that matters is who is in charge and it should be them.

Another disturbing trend from crime lab directors and prosecutors alike is their reaction when a sloppy or corrupt scientist is discovered. When this happens, the question always comes: how many cases are affected? The answer from lab directors and prosecutors is always the same: only the ones you already know about.

How could it be that sloppy and corrupt scientists are so perfect in revealing their deficiencies to the world?

The successful efforts of Greg Matheson and his like-minded collaborators to shut down any oversight into their activities after they saw the Draft Legislation that they helped to write are revolting and alarming. Those on the Senate Judiciary Committee who drew up the Draft Legislation should realize that they are not dealing with a group of well-intentioned people who mean to correct the deficiencies of the world of forensic science.

Instead it appears that these groups and their leaders will attempt to use any power given to them to make forensic science a darker, more dangerous place for everyone: for forensic scientists, for those who seek oversight, and for the public. Congress cannot allow this to happen.

In my next post I will talk more about the Draft Legislation and the Subcommittee on Forensic Science currently operating out of the White House.

See all NAS posts.