Alleging Negligence in Baltimore Crime Lab, Innocence Project Formally Requests Investigation under Federal Law
Improper DNA procedures tainted an unknown number of cases, says filing, which sparks mandatory investigation by Maryland State Police
(BALTIMORE, MD; December 17, 2008) – Negligence in the Baltimore Police Department’s crime lab tainted DNA analysis in an unknown number of criminal cases for seven years and raises serious questions about other forensic work in the lab, the Innocence Project said today in a formal allegation that the state is legally required to investigate.
In August, the Baltimore Police Department revealed that its lab analysts were contaminating evidence with their own DNA. The lab did not follow the standard practice of putting DNA samples of its own employees into a database, which safeguards against contamination. As a result, when Baltimore lab employees handled evidence and left their own DNA on it, analysts identified it as foreign DNA that could have been from perpetrators of crime. This can incorrectly steer investigators away from identifying criminals, can weaken criminal prosecutions (by suggesting that another, unidentified person’s DNA was present at the crime scene), and can lead police to discount what should be strong DNA evidence and instead focus on innocent suspects, the Innocence Project said in today’s allegation. (The Innocence Project is affiliated Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.)
The eight-page allegation, filed with the Maryland State Police, requests a thorough investigation of the contamination and a re-examination of all cases that may have been affected. It also requests that the State Police identify corrective action and changes in lab policies and procedures to prevent future contamination. Finally, the allegation requests that all of the investigation’s findings be presented in a public report.
Federal law requires states, cities and counties to have oversight mechanisms in place if they receive federal money for their crime labs. Specifically, the law (passed in 2004) requires jurisdictions seeking federal funding for their forensic facilities to identify a government entity with an appropriate process to conduct independent, external investigations into allegations of negligence or misconduct affecting forensic results. In 2005, 2006 and 2007 (the most recent years for which information is available), the Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention received a total of $584,048 in grants covered by the law, a portion of which went to the Baltimore crime lab. In 2006, the lab received $93,200 in applicable grants directly from the federal government. In 2007, the Baltimore Police Department designated the Maryland State Police as the entity to handle investigations. As an agency of Maryland’s state government, the State Police Department is completely separate from the City of Baltimore Police Department, which runs the crime lab.
The allegation filed today by the Innocence Project focuses on contamination in DNA analysis, but it also references a history of problems at the Baltimore crime lab. Serious contamination of gunshot residue analysis was discovered at the lab in 2001 and continued for several years. Serious, ongoing problems in the lab that jeopardize the quality and accuracy of forensic analysis cannot be remedied with an internal investigation, the Innocence Project said in today’s allegation.
“We don’t know how many cases have been contaminated in Baltimore’s crime lab or how those cases might have turned out differently if the lab used proper safeguards. The only way to fully address this is through an independent investigation that can identify the root problem, rather than just the symptoms, and develop specific actions that can prevent future contamination,” said Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom, who signed the allegation filed today. “What we’re seeing in the Baltimore crime lab is precisely the kind of problem Congress had in mind when it created this oversight mechanism. A proper investigation – which is thorough, independent and external – can ensure quality forensic analysis in Baltimore and help restore public confidence in the criminal justice system.”
A proper investigation of the Baltimore crime lab will not aim to point fingers or lay blame, the allegation says. It notes that the state’s forensic community juggles heavy caseloads with limited resources, and that a proper investigation that helps ensure quality forensics is in everyone’s best interests.
Earlier this year, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors’ Laboratory Accreditation Board said it was sending some of its own investigators to look into the contamination at the Baltimore crime lab. The agency accredits crime labs nationwide, but it is not a government body and its own director publicly said that the Baltimore crime lab can still be accredited without addressing the contamination problems.
“There is no substitute for the independent, external investigation we are sparking with today’s allegation,” Saloom said. “Federal law requires that investigations be conducted by government agencies, which are accountable to the public.”
The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. To date, 225 people nationwide have been exonerated through DNA testing and dozens of states have implemented critical reforms to prevent wrongful convictions.