Dallas-Forth Worth Star-Telegram

Posted on Sun, Nov. 27, 2005

Lab inquiry finds flaws but no injustices


STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER

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 has found.

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 the laboratory."

Tarrant County spent more than $40,000 on the inquiry.

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 lab's funding.

"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 some time."

The district attorney's office began its investigation in April 2003, focusing first on Carmichael, who was subsequently fired.

Later, it scrutinized the work of fellow scientist Treva Armstrong, who had raised concerns about Carmichael to lab officials.

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 trial.

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 28-year-old man 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 Carmichael's findings, 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 investigation determined that no one had been wrongly accused or convicted based on her work.

"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 and procedures."

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."

Testing problems

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 section's problems 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.

Unnecessary delays

For 18 months, a jail cell was home for Jonathan Byner.

Byner was arrested in December 2002 after a 9-year-old girl 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 space.

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 legislation, including 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 welcome.

"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 his choice."

IN THE KNOW

Timeline of crime-lab problems

June 2002: Fort Worth Police Chief Ralph Mendoza seeks 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 attorney's office 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 contaminated 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, resigns.

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 serology units.

SOURCE: Star-Telegram research


Deanna Boyd, (817) 390-7655 dboyd@star-telegram.com


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