Director of city police crime lab fired
Database update reveals employees' DNA tainted evidence, throwing lab's reliability into question
By Julie Bykowicz and Justin Fenton, Sun reporters
August 20, 2008
Baltimore crime analysts have been contaminating evidence with their own DNA -- a revelation that led to the dismissal this week of the city Police Department's crime lab director and prompted questions Wednesday from defense attorneys and forensic experts about the professionalism of the state's biggest and busiest crime lab.
Defense attorneys said any flaws in the city's handling of DNA could raise broader questions about evidence that is generally considered infallible. As testing becomes more sophisticated and new standards for labs emerge, cities across the country, including Houston and Seattle, have been discovering contamination issues that in some cases led to convictions being overturned.
"There are some concerns," Mayor Sheila Dixon said. "We don't have the details yet to know if these cases are in jeopardy, so I can't speak on that publicly yet."
The problem in Baltimore came to light when a new DNA supervisor in the lab, Rana Santos, began entering employee DNA samples into a database and comparing them against "unknown" genetic profiles found in evidence from crime scenes.
Santos' work has revealed about a dozen instances out of 2,500 in which a previously unknown genetic profile turned out to be that of a lab employee, Clifford said. The analysis is continuing, he said, with more employees' DNA being entered into the database and more unknown samples being re-examined.
Reached at home Wednesday, Koch, a former Anne Arundel County police officer who developed the forensics lab there, said supervisors had mistakenly believed since 2005 that the lab staff's DNA samples had been entered into the database when they had in fact been sitting on a shelf.
He said he notified Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III when the oversight was discovered. He said Bealefeld was "not happy" and told him to resign late Tuesday.
"I was there 12 years and never had any issues," Koch said, adding that he was never informed of any other concerns with his job performance. "That's good personnel in there, and they should not be knocked for everything. I think [the criticism] is blown out of proportion."
Several experts, including the director of the national crime lab accreditation board, said they were surprised that Baltimore had failed to take what they called the basic step of cataloging the employees' DNA.
"It's a uniformly standard practice of laboratories doing DNA testing," said Ralph Keaton, director of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board. That board accredited Baltimore's lab in December 2006.
Keaton said that maintaining an employee database is not a requirement of accreditation but that not doing so is all but unheard of. After learning about Baltimore's contamination from reporters and a public defender Wednesday, Keaton said he would call the Police Department to follow up but did not say whether the lab's accreditation could be at risk.
Two local agencies, the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore County Police, said they have always maintained DNA databases of laboratory employees who come into contact with the samples. Police spokesman Bill Toohey said that since Baltimore County began testing DNA in 2001, the first step in any analysis has always been to test samples against the staff profiles.
Clifford stressed that the contamination "didn't produce false positives," meaning that no suspects were inadvertently identified because of the lab's mistakes. He said the city crime lab and its DNA section were fully operational Wednesday.
"Fewer than 15 known incidents of staff contamination over seven years isn't the kind of thing that holds up lab operations," Clifford said.
But Patrick Kent, chief of the forensics division at the state public defender's office, said police are "talking out of both sides of their mouth."
"They're saying, 'Oh, it's not a problem at all,' and on the other hand they have fired the crime lab director," Kent said. "And I can tell you that never happens. Crime lab directors are only fired when you have some serious quality control violations."
Baltimore Public Defender Elizabeth Julian said her office is researching the cases directly affected by the problems and trying to learn more about the potential overall impact.
Kent said that the number of cases of known DNA contamination matters less than the fact that there has been contamination at all. He said defense attorneys have good cause to wonder if DNA collected from suspects has been transferred to samples from crime scene evidence.
"Contamination of any sort shows that there has, in fact, been a failure of lab practices," he said. "Any suggestion that is not a systemic problem simply shows a lack of basic understanding of how a lab should operate."
Dean Wideman, a forensic expert in San Antonio, Texas, said the contamination reflects poorly on the individual analysts and on the lab itself.
"It comes down to technique and carelessness - either way, it shouldn't happen that often," Wideman said. "It's bad for that analyst as well as the credibility of the lab. It's a reflection of the kind of work being done and the way they process samples in general."
Koch said that contamination does occur but called criticism a "smoke screen" and an attempt to "taint a jury pool by making accusations."
A 2004 report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found that forensic scientists at the Washington State Patrol laboratory had contaminated tests or made other mistakes while handling DNA evidence in at least 23 cases involving major crimes over a three-year period, including eight instances in which analysts contaminated samples with their own DNA.
And in 2003 the Houston Police Department suspended DNA testing and disciplined nine crime laboratory employees after an audit revealed that thousands of cases had to be retested because of errors in DNA analysis and possible contamination of samples. Evidence of DNA mishandling there resulted in a handful of convictions being overturned.
Practices in Baltimore's crime lab have been called into question before. Three years ago, Kent's forensics division launched a campaign against the crime lab's methods of analyzing gunshot residue, tiny particles left behind when a gun is fired. Police practices and disorganization at the lab led to contamination and unreliable gunshot residue test results, Kent said. He said his office is still sifting through years of cases to check for potentially false gunshot residue tests.
Kent said the city's lab has been "consistently unable to produce accurate scientific analysis" and Koch's dismissal is "years overdue." Koch was paid about $105,000 last year. Sharon Talmadge will serve as acting director of the lab, which has 114 employees, including 22 in the DNA section.
Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.
||Truth in Justice