The Inquirer

Posted on Mon, Jun. 23, 2003

Focus sharpens on crime labs' work

Inquirer Staff Writer

Mistakes made by a lab scientist in Bethlehem could call into question evidence in 615 criminal cases in 27 counties across Pennsylvania, state police said last week.

The case focuses attention once again on the nation's approximately 400 crime labs, which process evidence in thousands of cases each year but which remain largely unregulated.

"Stunningly, that is true," said Peter Loge, director of the Criminal Justice Reform Education Fund, a nonprofit agency that works to educate the public about problems in the criminal justice system. Loge said that no independent body oversees the nation's forensic crime labs, which analyze a variety of evidence in criminal investigations. Nor is there a watchdog organization that investigates problems when they occur. "Again and again we've seen wrongful convictions, and there isn't any organization that goes in and says, 'What went wrong?' "

The Pennsylvania case arises as problems have surfaced at other labs across the country. In Phoenix, police said last month that lab technicians miscalculated DNA results, calling nine felony cases into question. Officials in Montana and Washington are reexamining cases involving a forensic scientist, Arnold Melnikoff, after DNA testing cleared two innocent men of rape and called his testimony about hair samples into question. And in Houston, an outside audit of the city's DNA lab that followed a critical television report uncovered a series of problems that could ripple out to hundreds of criminal cases. The scandal is still unfolding there: As of Friday, two top officials had resigned, seven had been disciplined, and a majority of City Council members called for the police chief's resignation.

"Often, the work of the crime lab does not receive a lot of scrutiny from outsiders, so problems can persist for a long time without becoming known," said William Thompson, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California at Irvine who studies how evidence is handled in crime labs and presented at trial.

In the Pennsylvania case, a routine check found discrepancies in four cases handled by Ranae Houtz, 32, who had worked for three years in the state police crime lab. Houtz, a serologist, analyzed body fluids. In one case, she failed to detect a semen stain on an article of clothing. In another case, she failed to include evidence on a report.

She was given remedial training, but then resigned. On May 5, state police notified district attorneys in 27 counties of the potential for error in 615 cases. Prosecutors are reviewing those cases to see whether new forensic analysis is needed.

Risa Ferman, first assistant district attorney in Montgomery County, credited the state crime lab for having the internal controls to catch the problem early.

"This is not an instance where someone outside of the lab found widespread incompetence and revealed it," she said. "That is reassuring."

Ralph Keaton, executive director of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board, said more mistakes were being found in crime labs because more labs were becoming accredited.

"We probably didn't find mistakes like this years ago," he said.

About 230 of the nation's labs are accredited through the society board, which has devised a manual of crime lab standards and which accredits crime labs on a voluntary basis. Accreditation requires a "very thorough inspection," Keaton said, and must be renewed every five years. Annual reviews of lab work and staff are required to maintain accreditation.

Pennsylvania's state police lab in Bethlehem was accredited by the group in March 2002. Maj. John R. Capriotti, director of the state police Bureau of Forensic Services, said the routine checks that caught Houtz's errors were part of the standards the lab maintains to keep its accreditation.

But the current system does not go far enough, said Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that has helped exonerate 131 people wrongly convicted and that calls for greater oversight of the nation's crime labs. Voluntary accreditation is "a nice first step," Neufeld said, but the accrediation board asks only for "lowest common denominator standards" because it is essentially a trade group of crime lab professionals, not an independent body committed to rigorous investigation.

For example, Neufeld said, when consumers go to the store and buy a piece of meat, they know it has been inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Would you still buy the steak if it was inspected by the meat packers' association?" he asked.

Neufeld noted that the FBI's crime laboratory is subject to the Inspector General's Office of the Department of Justice, but that state and local crime laboratories do not fall under any watchdog agency. Medical and clinical laboratories in the United States must meet rigorous federal standards and are expected to maintain "best practices," he added. "We should expect no less from crime laboratories, whose work product will [also] result in life-or-death decisions."

Contact staff writer Leslie Pappas at 610-313-8125 or Staff writers Jeff Shields and Keith Herbert contributed to this article.

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