September 26, 2008
Troubled Detroit Police crime lab shuttered
State Police audit results 'appalling,' Wayne County prosecutor declares
BY BEN SCHMITT and JOE SWICKARD
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS
The Detroit Police crime lab is so plagued with problems that it can't be trusted to help deliver justice in criminal cases, officials said Thursday as they announced its immediate closure.
A Michigan State Police preliminary audit of the Detroit Police firearms lab revealed a 10% error rate in ballistic evidence and led to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and Detroit Police Chief James Barren announcing the closing of all operations of the crime lab.
Barnett was trying a double homicide case and questioned whether 42 spent shell casings could have come from the same weapon as the crime lab indicated. He hired former Michigan State Police firearms examiner David Balash to review the evidence, and determined that 17 casings came from one weapon and 25 came from a second weapon.
"Oh my God, I can't tell you how catastrophic this is," Balash said Thursday. "That kind of number -- I never would have thought it."
"You can have no idea how many people have been wrongfully charged," Barnett said. "Technically, you have to look at every firearms" case.
Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. and Barren made the decision to close the entire lab, which also handles fingerprints, DNA and drug evidence. All testing now will be conducted by the State Police.
"I want to make it very clear that the problems that have since been uncovered as a result of this audit did not occur on my watch," Cockrel said. "However, they have now come to light on my watch. We have a serious problem within the crime lab."
Councilwoman JoAnn Watson and other council members called the lab revelations a fiasco and accused former police executives of misleading council members by saying that the problems that periodically surfaced were isolated.
"You also have the potential liability issue. Who knows how many persons have been incarcerated, how many trials have gone forth with flawed information?"
Wayne County Circuit Judge Brian Sullivan said Barren is making the right move.
"I think they need to restore public confidence as soon as possible," he said. "It's a wise choice for the integrity of the criminal justice system to make sure no further mistakes are made."
All 68 employees of the crime lab will be reassigned while a review into what caused the problems takes place, Barren said.
Worthy said members of her staff will team up with Barren and Michigan State Police investigators to review crime lab findings. She said "it's going to cost quite a bit of money."
"It's a huge can of worms," Worthy said, adding that criminal charges within the police department are a possibility.
The findings add to a list of problems plaguing the department, including slow police response times and a reduction in the number of cops. The department is functioning under a federal consent decree mandating reforms.
Detroit defense attorney David Cripps said accurate scientific evidence is vital "when people get on the stand and commit perjury right and left."
"Jurors are absolutely fascinated by scientific evidence," Cripps said. "We have been led to believe that science is the answer to a quandary."
Contact BEN SCHMITT at 313-223-4296 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Zachary Gorchow contributed to this report.
||Truth in Justice