Lab inquiry finds flaws but no injustices
STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER
FORT WORTH - No
one was wrongly convicted or accused of a crime because of flawed DNA
analysis in the Fort Worth police crime lab, a two-year investigation
The Tarrant County district attorney's office,
however, did find
widespread problems in the serology and DNA unit, as well as troubling
practices in the lab's chemistry and firearms sections, according to a
report recently obtained by the Star-Telegram.
Among the significant findings were:
Two homicides in which DNA evidence should not
have been used at trial.
A firearms examiner conducting peer reviews in
the chemistry section.
Scientists in the chemistry section relying on a
procedure not supported by credible science.
Improperly stored evidence, some of it dating
back 40 years.
Police officials insist -- and prosecutors
acknowledge -- that many
of the problems have been fixed and that improvements are ongoing. The
DNA unit was closed in 2002, and all DNA analysis is now outsourced.
The chemistry and firearms sections received accreditation this year,
and accreditation is also being sought in latent prints and serology.
More staffing and new equipment have been added. And an experienced
crime-lab manager was hired last year.
"I am not interested in assigning blame. That
time has come and gone," Police Chief Ralph Mendoza said.
"The review of the district attorney's office
took approximately two
years. The issues in this report have been resolved. Although they may
not be apparent, the issues revolved around underlying personnel
issues, supervision and perhaps management of our crime lab."
Assistant District Attorney Mark Thielman, who
conducted the inquiry
with Christy Jack, said the investigation was well worth the time.
"The fact that we did not indict anyone or
uncover a wrongly accused
individual does not make this a wasted effort," Thielman said. "This
inquiry, along with other factors, helped spur many positive changes in
Tarrant County spent more than $40,000 on the
The final report, presented to crime-lab
officials and Mendoza, says
the lab's problems were years in the making because the city didn't
provide it with enough resources.
"The Crime Laboratory was not provided adequate
financial support to
hire and to train the number of forensic experts needed to handle the
forensic caseload, pay the salaries required to attract and to retain
qualified forensic scientists and to acquire and upgrade equipment and
facilities," the report states.
Mendoza disagreed with the assessment of the
"The crime lab had functioned very well for years
and years based on
the way they were set up and the funding they had received," he said.
DNA work suspended
Problems in the crime lab surfaced in 2002.
That October, DNA analysis was suspended after
questions about the
work of forensic scientist Karla Carmichael prompted prosecutors to
forgo seeking the death penalty in a capital-murder case. Nine months
later, serology work -- or the screening of evidence for biological
fluids -- would also be stopped after contamination questions surfaced
in a rape case.
Mendoza said the department delved into the
issues and made changes as quickly as possible.
"Personnel issues can take a great deal of time
to resolve," he
said. "In addition, we were without a director over the crime lab for
The district attorney's office began its
investigation in April 2003, focusing first on Carmichael, who was
Later, it scrutinized the work of fellow
scientist Treva Armstrong, who had raised concerns about Carmichael to
DNA experts with the University of North Texas
Health Science Center
found that Armstrong had been performing work despite not having
documentation that she had passed a competency exam.
As part of the review, prosecutors examined about
80 DNA cases
handled by Carmichael and Armstrong. Thirty-six required retesting.
A DNA consultant, Patrick Cooke, found errors in
all 36 of the cases.
In two murder cases, Cooke found that
Carmichael's errors were such
that her testimony about the DNA evidence should not have been used at
He said the errors reflected a problem not only
with Carmichael but
also with lab oversight. One of those cases involved Timothy R.
Thompson, a 39-year-old Fort Worth man sentenced to 25 years in prison
in 2001 after being convicted of murder for shooting an acquaintance.
Thompson had contended that it was self-defense.
The other case involved Maurice Gauthier, a
sentenced to life in prison in August 2002 after he was found guilty of
smothering a 19-year-old woman in a hotel room, stuffing her body in a
large duffel bag and dumping her body in a creek bed.
Cooke's finding came after appeals in both cases
had been exhausted,
but defense attorney Richard Alley still sought new trials. In the
Gauthier case, the request was denied without a hearing. The other case
is still pending.
New tests ordered in each case confirmed
according to court documents. Carmichael said she had previously
notified lab officials of many of the same problems that the district
attorney's office cited.
"Those are the exact same concerns that were
brought to the
administration many, many years ago in a memo that I wrote," said
Carmichael, who believes that she was made a scapegoat for the
problem-riddled crime lab.
Carmichael said she is not surprised that the
determined that no one had been wrongly accused or convicted based on
"I've always stood by my results, and I will
always stand by them," she said.
Armstrong, who resigned in April 2004, said in an
e-mail that "I
stand by the work that I performed in accordance with FWPD DNA Policies
and Procedures. So, if any expert has an issue with any case that was
handled by me, then he/she actually has an issue with the labs policies
Alley said he is flabbergasted by the findings,
especially regarding Carmichael's testimony in the Gauthier case.
"She didn't follow protocols and then lied about
having done it,"
Alley said. "You hear about that stuff somewhere else. You just don't
hear about that stuff here."
For two years, scientists in the chemistry
section used a practice
not supported by credible science to identify red phosphorus, a
component in the manufacturing of methamphetamine, the report states.
Although the practice was ceased in April 2003
after some junior
members of the section challenged it, prosecutors said lab officials
never checked past cases for errors.
When prosecutors reviewed the meth-lab cases,
they found three in
which the invalidated practice had been relied upon. One case had been
dismissed for unrelated reasons. Two cases resulted in plea agreements.
Jack Strickland, a defense attorney in one of the
plea cases, said
he plans to discuss the finding with his client, Justin Hall, to
determine whether Hall wants to seek a new trial. In August 2004, Hall
pleaded guilty to manufacturing a controlled substance and was
sentenced to seven years in prison.
The prosecutors note that many of the chemistry
were attributable to former chemists. A review of 40 cases to check the
section's current operations found minor problems in five cases.
Also troubling to prosecutors, the report states,
was that Robert
Adkins, a firearms analyst, was allowed to conduct peer reviews on
blood-alcohol-level cases for the chemistry section.
Crime-lab manager Tom Stimpson said the practice
has been stopped,
and he acknowledged that "we shouldn't have been doing it." He said the
lab's peer-review process now exceeds accreditation requirements.
For 18 months, a jail cell was home for Jonathan
Byner was arrested in December 2002 after a
identified him from a photo spread as the man who kidnapped her as she
walked to school and who made her perform a sexual act.
Despite a detective's request to have the crime
lab analyze the
child's clothing for biological evidence, the clothing sat untouched in
the Police Department's property room. Crime-lab officials would later
say they could find no record of such a request.
Three days before Byner was to go on trial, tests
revealed that a
semen stain on the girl's pant leg was not a match for Byner. The case
was immediately dismissed. Prosecutors say the delay highlighted the
lab's lack of a system for managing test requests.
Stimpson is now overseeing all testing requests
and outsourcing of
evidence. He said cases in which detectives request testing now
typically have about a one-month turnaround.
Changes are also under way to address evidence
storage problems, Stimpson said.
In the past, evidence returned to the Police
Department from the
Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office was stored in a temporary
evidence room and, more recently, a shell space off the lab, instead of
the property room.
Although this practice was ceased in 1996, about
90 boxes of
evidence related to cases going back 40 years had remained in the shell
Stimpson said that the evidence has since been
inventoried and that
employees are marking it with its related-cases number and moving it to
the property room.
Prosecutors acknowledge that recently passed
the requirement that all public crime labs be accredited and the
creation of a commission to investigate allegations of misconduct,
should help with oversight.
But as a further safeguard, prosecutors say
they'll conduct a random review of DNA cases from any crime lab.
Stimpson said the district attorney's review is
"Right now we follow standard operating
procedures, we do an
internal audit, we plan to have auditors come from other labs to audit
us once a year, we do proficiency tests, we do technical reviews,"
Stimpson said. "If he wants another layer of certainty on that, that's
IN THE KNOW
Timeline of crime-lab problems
June 2002: Fort Worth Police Chief Ralph
funding for crime-lab renovations and three new positions to reduce a
backlog and staff turnover and ensure employee safety and proper
processing of criminal cases.
October 2002: DNA analysis is suspended
after questions about
forensic scientist Karla Carmichael's work cause prosecutors to forgo
seeking the death penalty in a capital-murder case.
April 2003: The Tarrant County district
begins a criminal investigation into the DNA lab. The Police Department
fires Carmichael, saying she violated standard operating procedures and
protocol during her proficiency test, behaved unacceptably at work and,
according to some expert opinions, was unqualified to be a DNA analyst.
July 29, 2003: Officials with the
University of North Texas
Health Science Center, the lab's technical adviser, write in a memo
that forensic analyst Treva Armstrong worked at the lab despite not
having documentation that she passed a competency exam. The district
attorney's office begins investigating Armstrong's work.
July 31, 2003: After questions arise about
evidence in a rape case, the district attorney's office notifies police
in writing that the office will no longer accept serology-testing
results from the lab. The crime lab stops serology tests.
April 2004: Armstrong, who was transferred
to the ballistics unit after serology and DNA tests were discontinued,
May 2004: As prosecutors are wrapping up
their DNA and
serology review, two former lab employees make new allegations of
wrongdoing in the lab's DNA, chemistry and firearms units. The
investigation is extended.
September 2004: Police begin looking for
sites for a new crime lab after a proposal to merge the police and
county crime lab is quashed.
October 2004: Tom Stimpson is hired as the
crime lab's manager.
January 2005: The chemistry and firearms
units receive accreditation.
November 2005: The crime lab resumed
serology work last week
after receiving provisional authorization from the Department of Public
Safety. A site for a new crime lab is still being sought, and the lab
is trying to get accreditation for its fingerprint-examination and
SOURCE: Star-Telegram research