Chicago Sun-Times

Independent crime labs could help stop forensic fraud
November 7, 2004

Forensic scientists -- as experience, recent and historic, has shown -- have with disturbing frequency misled juries and sometimes blatantly lied about laboratory results, thus contributing to untold numbers of wrongful criminal convictions in Illinois and throughout the United States.

One example is the case of John Willis, a Chicagoan charged with rape in 1991. Pamela Fish, a Chicago Police Department forensic scientist, performed a serological analysis on semen recovered from the crime scene. The analysis showed that Willis was not the source of the semen. When Willis came to trial in 1992, however, Fish testified that test results were inconclusive. Willis was convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison, where he languished for more than eight years before the truth finally emerged.

Another example is the case of Gary Dotson, who was convicted a quarter of a century ago of a rape that had not occurred. The purported victim had concocted the allegation to explain what she feared was a pregnancy resulting from sex with her boyfriend. At Dotson's trial, a state forensic scientist, Timothy Dixon, provided highly incriminating testimony to bolster the victim's identification of Dotson. Dixon told the jury that Dotson was among only 10 percent of all men who could have been the source of the semen. In truth, however, the semen could have emanated from roughly two-thirds of the male population. Dotson was sentenced to 30 years in prison and was not exonerated until a decade later, when DNA established his innocence.

Yet another example is the case of Dennis Williams, who was convicted of a 1978 rape and double murder that became infamously known as the Ford Heights Four case. Michael Podelecki, a state forensic scientist, testified that three hairs recovered from Williams' car ''matched'' the hair of the victims. But Scotland Yard examined the hair evidence eight years later and established that it did not match. Williams was sentenced to death, but exonerated in 1996 by DNA and convictions of the actual killers.

Forensic deception is not only tragic for the wrongfully convicted, their families and friends, and the victims or their survivors who are denied justice, but it also carries significant social and financial costs. The social costs include disrespect for law enforcement among the poor and minorities who bear the brunt of wrongful convictions, and streets that are rendered less safe when law enforcement pursues the innocent rather than actual violent criminals. The financial costs include millions of dollars in litigation expenses that would be substantially reduced by a higher degree of accuracy in the criminal justice system, and the cost of civil rights judgments and settlements -- witness the $36 million that Cook County taxpayers forked over to the Ford Heights Four.

The risk of deceptive forensic practices is heightened by the strong institutional kinship between the technicians who analyze forensic evidence and the law enforcement agencies that investigate and prosecute criminals. Virtually all crime laboratories have direct affiliations with law enforcement agencies. The Illinois laboratories are a division of the Illinois State Police. Subtle bias in favor of law enforcement is an almost inevitable result of this connection. At the extreme, as the Willis, Dotson and Williams cases illustrate, the status quo fosters fraud.

Forensic error and fraud are only two of the systemic flaws that lead to wrongful convictions. Among the others are the use of jailhouse snitch testimony procured via promises of leniency or immunity from prosecution; erroneous eyewitness identification; police and prosecutorial misconduct, and coerced or fabricated confessions.

Of these, only forensics was left unaddressed by a sweeping package of criminal justice reform legislation approved a year ago by the Illinois General Assembly legislation that has become a national model. Although the legislative package is no panacea for the ills of the system (some of its provisions apply only to capital cases), it holds the promise of making the Illinois criminal justice system the fairest and most accurate in the nation.

To complete the package, the General Assembly should remove crime labs from the auspices of law enforcement. This would make them truly independent. In 2002, former Gov. George Ryan's Commission on Capital Punishment recommended just that: the creation of an independent state crime laboratory ''with its own budget, separate from any police agency or supervision."

As the Willis, Dotson and Ford Heights Four cases make abundantly clear, the time has long passed for lawmakers to address the plague of forensic abuse.

Locke Bowman
is director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago Law School and Rob Warden is director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law.

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