Detroit Free Press

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.

The audit also found, among other things, that access to the firearms unit was unrestricted and evidence could have been contaminated because it was allowed to overflow into office and work areas; lab workers were not given competency tests before being allowed to work on cases.

Worthy is expected to meet with Wayne County Circuit judges today to discuss what she called "appalling findings."

"If we have even one person in prison on evidence that was improperly done, that's a huge problem," Worthy said. "As prosecutors, we completely rely on the findings of police crime lab experts every day in court and we present this information to juries. And when there are failures of this magnitude, there is a ... betrayal of trust."

The audit warned that if the error rate holds, "the negative impact on the judicial system would be substantial, with a strong likelihood of wrongful convictions and a valid concern about numerous appeals."

"The language may be dry, but it destroys the credibility of the firearms lab and calls into question all the lab work in general," said David Moran, head of the Innocence Project at the University of Michigan Law School.

"When they talk of 'Class I inconsistencies' that's just a polite term for a false positive -- they said a bullet came from a gun and it didn't," Moran said.

Questions about the firearms testing in the Detroit lab were raised in April after defense attorney Marvin Barnett determined that police mishandled evidence in a shooting case. Former chief Ella Bully-Cummings closed the firearms unit -- though other functions continued until Thursday -- and asked the State Police to conduct an audit.
Highlights of the audit of the crime lab

• Reexamination of 200 firearms cases found 19 with major errors, such as erroneous identification or false identifications.

• Auditors could not determine whether testing instruments and equipment were routinely maintained or recalibrated to assure accuracy.

• The auditors could not find documentation to verify the training of lab workers or the existence of a formal training program, including training manuals.

• Lab workers were not given competency tests before being allowed to work on cases.

• Access to the firearms unit was unrestricted, and evidence could have been contaminated because it was allowed to overflow into office and work areas.

• The lab's findings that auditors reviewed were difficult to prove because notes, photographs and other documents "are almost nonexistent in the case file records."

Source: Michigan State Police Forensic Science Division

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 bcschmitt@freepress.com. Staff writer Zachary Gorchow contributed to this report.


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