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Crime Lab Scandals

By Timothy Bussey on July 13, 2018

During the last ten years, the public has become fascinated with forensic science. Crime shows like CSI and Law & Order have glamorized the profession. Enrollment in degree programs in forensic science is on the rise. High schools offer electives in forensic science and your child can even take crime scene investigation summer camp.

Crime labs are an important part of our judicial process. Their purpose is to scientifically analyze and preserve evidence of crimes. Done right, forensic scientists help exclude the innocent and convict the guilty. Done wrong, innocent people are convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.

In the last ten years, there have been several scandals in our Nation’s crime labs. From Alaska to Massachusetts, crime labs, forensic scientists, and prosecutors have been sanctioned for a variety of offenses and misdeeds casting heavy clouds over the validity of their prosecutions and raising questions about their convictions.

Consider these reports:

  • In 2010, a lab tech was found to have been using cocaine that she said had spilled in the lab, and had also taken cocaine from a colleague’s locker in the lab. 21 empty vials were found in the tech’s home. 11 evidence samples were found to have been tampered with in the lab. An investigation found the defense attorneys were not told of the lab tech’s criminal past and that the work of the lab was slipshod. All of this is important to the tech’s credibility when testifying in court. In the end, several cases were called in question and compromised due to the tech’s actions. San Francisco Weekly, Jaxon Van Derbeken, April 14, 2010.
  • A crime lab in California was reported to have concealed a mix-up of test tubes containing DNA evidence in a homicide case. Documents revealed that records of the sample switch had been destroyed. San Francisco Weekly, Peter Jamison, Dec. 15, 2010.
  • In 2015, the FBI acknowledged 26 of 28 forensic hair examiners overstated matches in a manner favoring the prosecution. They did so in 95% of 268 trials. The cases included 32 cases where the defendant was sentenced to death. At the time of the FBI’s acknowledgement, 14 defendants had died in prison or been executed. Washington Post, Spencer S. Hsu, April 18, 2015.
  • In Massachusetts, the Boston Herald reported that a former chemist at the state crime lab had been using drug evidence to feed her habit and had even cooked crack-cocaine in the lab for her use. When arrested, the chemist admitted to smoking crack in the lab after hours or during overtime hours and even before testifying in court in cases in which she had tested the drugs. Boston Herald, Matt Stout May 3, 2016. A lab tech doing drugs and high on the stand certainly brings into question the accuracy of her work.
  • A review of procedures of a crime lab in Austin, Texas, determined DNA analysts were not adequately trained and did not adhere to nationally recognized best practices in handling DNA evidence. Analysts who brought their concerns to management were ignored. The analysts were using outdated statistical models to process DNA samples taken from crime scenes. A second study of Texas crime labs found that of 302 prisoners who were exonerated, 142 had been convicted in part due to inaccurate or misleading forensic evidence. Austin American Statesman, Eric Dexheimer Jan. 12, 2017.

Colorado is no stranger to crime lab scandals.

  • In Colorado, prosecutors use paper certifications from the Colorado Department of Health to show the validity of breathalyzer tests in DUI cases. The certifications are supposed to prove that the breath machines used in such cases provide an accurate measure of a person’s blood alcohol content. The result of the breathalyzer test is the basis for a DUI prosecution. If the machine is not properly calibrated, it can record a higher blood alcohol result than is accurate. In 2017, it was found that the certifications for the breath machines, the Intoxilyzer 9000, were being forged. The signatures on the certifications were those of a lab director who hadn’t worked at CDPHE since 2015. Mike Barnhill, a former employee at CDPHE, told the Denver Post that in 2013 the Department was in a rush to begin using the new Intoxilyzer 9000. The Department brought in a lawyer and a marketing specialist from the company who made the machines to certify them. Mr. Barnhill raised concerns when he learned that a supervisor was having untrained employees calibrate and validate the machines. Lawyers in Weld county got 33 DUI cases dismissed because the Intoxilyzer 9000 used in the cases was recording inaccurate blood alcohol levels. Denver Post, Noelle Phillips March 15, 2017.
  • In 2009, a quality assurance audit revealed that the Colorado Springs crime lab’s breathalyzer machines were producing higher than actual blood alcohol levels. The prosecutor reached out to the lawyers for 82 defendants whose charges were based on the faulty results. Retests of 60 of the samples resulted in three dismissals. The Gazette, John C. Ensslin Dec. 11, 2009.
  • The Colorado state toxicology lab closed after it was revealed that a supervisor openly rooted for prosecutors, didn’t train staff properly and pressured employees to testify favorably regarding the labs work. State officials said the closure was related to lost revenue. However, during the closure, 800 blood samples were sent out of state for retesting. Denver Post, Jordan Steffen Oct. 21, 2013.
  • In 2016, the Colorado Bureau of Investigations acknowledged that it was having trouble with its testing of its blood tests. At least 56 DUI blood tests were incorrect, showing a lower blood alcohol level than was true. 16 samples were found to have a 5% discrepancy between the CBI tests and retests, 5 were determined to have more than a 10% discrepancy. CBS 4 Denver, Jan. 11, 2016.

Forensic science is critical in criminal cases. Done correctly, it helps identify the guilty and clear the innocent. Done negligently or with malice, it can lead to wrongful convictions of innocent people. People’s lives truly hang in the balance.

Tim Bussey was instrumental in bringing light to many of the troubles found in Colorado crime labs. He is the only Colorado attorney to have achieved the ACS Forensic Lawyer-Scientist Designation. He is a certified operator of the Intoxilyzer 5000, certified as an instructor for the NHTSA Field Sobriety Test, and is certified in forensic chromatography. He is well-versed in forensic protocols and can identify when things are amiss with the prosecutor’s case.

If you’ve been charged with a crime involving forensic evidence, you have a right to understand the evidence against you and the right to have invalid evidence excluded from your case. The attorneys and staff at The Bussey Law Firm, P.C., can help you fight to ensure the evidence is valid. If you are facing criminal charges, contact our top Colorado Springs criminal defense lawyers at (719) 475-2555 to learn more about your rights.

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