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U.S. Department of Justice Failing to Enforce Critical Forensic Oversight, New Innocence Project Report Finds

Finding that only 13% of designated forensic oversight entities meet federal law’s requirements, report outlines improvements the new Administration can make

Contact: Eric Ferrero; eferrero@innocenceproject.org; 212-364-5346

(WASHINGTON, DC; March 11, 2009) – A report released today by the Innocence Project shows that nearly five years after Congress passed legislation to ensure that forensic negligence and misconduct are properly investigated, the law is largely being ignored due to a lack of federal guidance and, as a result, serious problems in crime labs and other forensic facilities nationwide have not been addressed.

The 84-page report lays out key problems with the U.S. Department of Justice’s administration of the program for the last several years and outlines improvements the Obama Administration can make going forward. The report focuses on the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant Program, which provides federal funds to help improve the quality and efficiency of state and local crime labs and other forensic facilities – as long as those grant recipients have proper oversight mechanisms in place to handle forensic problems.

Specifically, federal law says that as a condition of receiving the federal money, applicants must designate independent, external government entities to review allegations of serious negligence or misconduct affecting the quality of forensic analysis and that those entities must have a process in place for handling such allegations. The report released today includes the results of an Innocence Project survey of the oversight entities designated by grant recipients – and the survey results show that that the vast majority of them are not in compliance with federal law, based on the Innocence Project’s analysis.

“Congress wanted to ensure that serious forensic negligence or misconduct was properly investigated. Instead, the Bush Administration’s Justice Department essentially ignored federal law and let serious problems in crime labs go unaddressed,” said Stephen Saloom, Policy Director at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. “The most serious consequence of the failure to enforce proper oversight is the risk to public safety when innocent people are convicted and perpetrators of crime remain free.”

The Innocence Project, which testified before a responsive Congress multiple times on the Department of Justice’s inadequate enforcement of the Coverdell grant program, released the new report to provide a clear roadmap for how the Obama Administration can improve the management of the program. “With increased attention on making sure that taxpayer money is spent wisely and that the criminal justice system relies on the best evidence possible, this report outlines what has gone wrong in enforcing forensic oversight requirements and how it can be made right,” Saloom said.  In order for the Coverdell grant program to operate as Congress intended, the new Administration must manage the program properly and give grant applicants the tools they need to comply with federal laws, says the report, titled “Investigating Forensic Problems in the United States: How the Federal Government Can Strengthen Oversight Through the Coverdell Grant Program.”

The report includes a survey and analysis by the Innocence Project which found that only 13% of the oversight entities meet all of the requirements under federal law – that they be external and independent, and that they have an appropriate process in place for handling investigations.  The Innocence Project compiled and analyzed data on 256 relationships between Coverdell grant applicants in 2007 and oversight entities they designated (some applicants designated multiple oversight entities, and some oversight entities were designated by multiple applicants, so the survey analyzed every relationship). Of the 256 relationships, 234 could be judged on their independence, externality or their investigative process.  Of those that could be analyzed, only 32% of the oversight entities designated by Coverdell grant recipients are both independent and external, according to the survey. Among those that are both independent and external, only 40% also have an appropriate process in place to conduct investigations.

Since the oversight mechanism was passed by Congress nearly five years ago, all 50 states have received federal funding for crime labs and other forensic facilities; in all, an estimated $100 million has been dispersed. Approximately 15 allegations of serious negligence or misconduct affecting the quality of forensic analysis have been filed, which the Innocence Project said is a surprisingly low number that can be attributed to the Justice Department’s inadequate administration of the program (because people do not understand how to file allegations and the proper oversight mechanisms and process aren’t in place to handle them).

“When only 13% of applicants comply with federal law, there are serious problems that need to be fixed,” said Saloom.  “The broad systemic problems we found can be directly attributed to the Justice Department’s poor administration of the program, which we hope changes under the new Administration.”

The report describes the federal forensic oversight program; outlines the problems that have plagued the program since its inception (with specific examples); explains the consequences of the federal government’s inadequate administration of the program; shows how forensic negligence and misconduct lead to wrongful convictions; and gives specific recommendations for what the federal government, states and individuals can do to strengthen forensic oversight.

Previously, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, which monitors federal administration of the program, issued two reports outlining serious problems.  One report was issued in December 2005, and the second was released in January 2008.  The Inspector General’s recommendations have yet to be fully implemented. 

The findings in the Innocence Project’s report, released today, include the following problems:

• Designated entities aren’t appropriate for conducting investigations. • Entities don’t know they’ve been designated to handle investigations. • Designated entities don’t have an appropriate process for conducting investigations. • The Department of Justice grants funds to states that aren’t complying with the requirements.

The report also makes note of the potential consequences to the above problems:

• Forensic negligence and misconduct can result in wrongful conviction. • Real perpetrators may commit additional crimes while innocent people are in prison. • Problems in labs may not be corrected – further weakening the criminal justice system. • The public and jurors may lose faith in forensic evidence and the criminal justice system generally when serious forensic problems are not properly addressed.

The report recommends what the federal government, state and local government, and the public can do:

Federal government:

• Provide better guidance to Coverdell applicants about what qualifies as an independent external government entity. • Provide Coverdell applicants with a clear framework for an “appropriate process” to investigate forensic errors. • Encourage each Coverdell applicant to provide supporting documentation with its grant application. • Make it easier for members of the public to file allegations under the Coverdell program. • Make sure labs are referring allegations to their investigative entities. • Monitor thoroughness and independence of investigations. • Withhold funding when the requirements are not met.

State and local government:

• Designate appropriate entities and communicate with them about what’s required. • Establish policies to clearly meet the certification requirement. • Facilitate the proper filing of Coverdell allegations.

The public:

• File allegations under the Coverdell program when appropriate. • Support legislative and executives fixes that can bolster forensic oversight. • The report is being delivered to key members of Congress, Justice Department officials, and state and local government entities who are involved in the program. 

Read an executive summary of the new report here .

Download the full report: " Investigating Forensic Problems in the United States: How the Federal Government Can Strengthen Oversight Through the Coverdell Grant Program " (PDF)

 

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