New York Times

May 16, 2005

Justice Under the Microscope

Television viewers relishing crime-show denouements based on airtight DNA evidence had best get a grip on reality: DNA is only as reliable as the humans testing it. Virginia's once highly touted crime lab has starkly demonstrated this in an error-ridden death-row case that was propped up repeatedly by botched DNA studies from the state's supposed experts.

Gov. Mark Warner has wisely ordered a review of more than 150 capital murder convictions involving DNA evidence. He acted in the face of an independent panel's finding that bad science and political intrusion underpinned the 17-year imprisonment of Earl Washington Jr., a mentally retarded man who came within days of execution for a vicious rape-murder.

After years of controversy and defensive denials by police and statehouse officials, independent DNA testing forced by outside critics from the Innocence Project not only cleared Mr. Washington, but also posit
ively identified another suspect now in prison as the source of DNA evidence at the murder scene. As doubts and real evidence mounted, state officials reluctantly pardoned Mr. Washington in 2000, but they did so seven years later than they should have if the state lab had done a proper job with the latest technology. Even now, some officials ludicrously theorize that Mr. Washington could have killed the woman, despite the proof of someone else's DNA.

Behind a veneer of official expertise, the lab director refused an outside review, but Governor Warner ordered one. Specialists from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors faulted the lab in a searing critique that should serve as a nationwide warning about the often shoddy and unprofessional standards that can afflict the criminal justice system via the crime labs of America.

For openers, the labs must be kept truly independent and subject to credible review by scientific peers. They should be insulated by law from the sort of political pressures found to have been exerted in the Washington case by officials intent on defending the capital punishment system as error-free. More than political careers, lives are at stake - 23 of them right now on Virginia's busy death row.

As Virginia was once hailed as a role model by other state crime labs, so its dangerous flaws must serve as a recipe for badly needed improvements. And producers of television's crime lab heroics might want to consider the tortured Earl Washington case for a plot-line leap into reality.

Junk Science
Truth in Justice