Crime lab neglected 16,000 cases
Evidence was never analyzed, probe finds
By Andrea Estes, Globe Staff | July 15, 2007
Evidence samples from thousands of crime scenes across Massachusetts, including nearly 1,000 homicides and other deaths and 6,500 sexual assaults, were never analyzed by the State Police crime lab, according to an investigation of the lab ordered by the state.
The lab's failure to process potentially crucial DNA evidence from 16,000 cases means that killers and rapists could be walking free, said two law enforcement officials who have seen the report. The backlog of samples, found in a refrigerated room at the Maynard laboratory, dates to the 1980s and is "of crisis proportions," the report said. The backlog is far greater than previously disclosed; lab administrators had acknowledged a backlog of only about 2,000 cases.
The investigation also found 4,000 rape evidence kits from as far back as 1989 that were never even opened to determine whether there was biological evidence that could help prosecutors identify and charge rapists, the officials said. The study, ordered by the state Executive Office of Public Safety in March, was conducted by Vance, an international risk management consulting firm with an office in Braintree. In their 57-page report, scheduled to be released tomorrow , the consultants conclude that the crime lab's problems, "allowed to fester, led to a crisis which unnecessarily undermined public confidence in a critical law enforcement function."
The two law enforcement officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the study has not been made public, briefed the Globe on the report, but declined to provide a copy. The report also points to deficiencies that include "lack of audits or independent outside reviews, serious questions concerning the qualifications of personnel . . . incomplete and improper documentation, and profile mistakes." It did not conclude that any DNA testing was conducted improperly or raise questions about any cases that have already been prosecuted.
"The degree to which this report demonstrates a disturbing lack of oversight at the crime lab during previous administrations is deeply troubling," said one official. "The Patrick administration has said it plans to continue its overhaul of the lab and quickly implement many of the recommendations of the report as well as aggressively address the unacceptable backlog that was created by negligent oversight."
The Patrick administration will likely hire a private company and spend as much as $6 million to analyze samples from cases where the statute of limitations has not expired, said the official. State public safety officials will also contact police departments and prosecutors to determine if there are cold cases that they may now be able to solve. The analysis could involve thousands of cases, according to the official.
The state hired Vance to conduct a $267,000 top-to-bottom review of the lab's operations after problems surfaced with the handling of evidence in the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, the FBI-funded computer network that serves as a national registry for DNA samples collected from convicted criminals and arrested individuals. State crime labs compare crime scene DNA evidence to genetic profiles in the national database to try to identify suspects.
The civilian head of the crime lab resigned under pressure in March. The administrator of the lab's DNA database was fired in April, three months after he was suspended for allegedly mishandling CODIS test results, including 13 cases in which he did not tell law enforcement officials about positive DNA matches in unsolved sexual assault cases until after the statute of limitations had expired .
Last month, the state's top forensics official, who supervised the crime lab and the troubled state medical examiner's office, also resigned. The FBI, the state Inspector General, and the State Police are also investigating the lab. Joseph Dorant , president of the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists, the union that represents the laboratory workers, said backlogs of crime scene samples that are waiting to be analyzed are not unique to Massachusetts.
"The staffing at the crime lab hasn't caught up to the pace of the technology," he said. "The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association did a report recommending that the lab hire an additional 50 chemists. We have some of the best forensic scientists in the state. In the last five years the state has put millions of dollars into a new crime lab and new equipment but now we need the forensic scientists to do the testing. We have a good staff."
In its report, Vance describes a national DNA backlog, but says the situation is much more severe at the crime lab. According to the report, during the laboratory's most productive year, in 2006, it tested samples from 500 cases, up from 200 the year before. In 2006, the laboratory, which had an annual budget of $16.2 million, received a funding increase to hire additional staff. Chemists at the lab, the report said, worked on an average of four cases a month -- about half the national average.
Joseph F. Savage Jr. , chairman of the New England Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted people through the use of DNA evidence, said the report "confirms our fears that the lab was a disaster."
Savage, who had called for an investigation into the laboratory by the inspector general, Gregory W. Sullivan, added: "We look forward to getting the complete facts when the Inspector General completes his independent investigation."
Testing of the yet-to-be-analyzed samples could turn up suspects in cases in which someone else has already been convicted and lead to exoneration. Jack McCarthy , a spokesman for the inspector general, declined to comment on the Vance report or his office's investigation.
Public safety officials hope to reorganize the lab, placing all of the state's forensic services, including the arson and ballistics investigative units, under one director to save money and make training standards more uniform. Among the report's 27 recommendations, the report suggests that the state conduct a national search for a new lab director.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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