New details: What led forensics board to suspend DC crime lab’s accreditation

New details are emerging on the reason a national forensics board suspended the D.C. crime lab’s accreditation to conduct forensic testing, with the board saying it has “credible evidence” the lab deliberately concealed information and engaged in fraudulent behavior.

WTOP obtained a copy of the April 2 letter from the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB) to D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences Director Jenifer Smith describing the reason for the suspension.

The letter makes clear the suspension is directly linked to allegations outlined in court documents by a team of experts retained by federal prosecutors and the D.C. attorney general’s office to probe the lab’s Firearms Examination Unit after the discovery of a faulty ballistics analysis.

Referring to that report, which was filed in D.C. Superior Court last month and first reported by WTOP, the letter stated: “ANAB has received credible evidence that the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences, Forensic Science Laboratory Division, has deliberately concealed information from the ANAB assessment team, violated accreditation requirements, engaged in misrepresentations and fraudulent behavior, and engaged in conduct that brings ANAB into disrepute.”

The letter was signed by Pamela Sale, vice president of forensics at ANAB, which inspects forensic labs and scores of other organizations around the world.

ANAB, which had re-accredited the lab last October, had previously declined to discuss the reason for the suspension, citing the organization’s confidentiality agreements with its customers.

The suspension, which was first reported over the weekend, applies to a wide range of forensic science testing, including the analysis of DNA, firearms and fingerprint evidence.

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart told WTOP in a statement that DFS would appeal the suspension. In the meantime, the city said it would contract private and federal labs to handle the department’s casework.

The letter from ANAB also makes clear that while the suspension is temporary, the board is already “initiating the process” for withdrawing the lab’s accreditation entirely.

“Typically, suspension is a temporary restriction put in place until the laboratory conforms with the responsibilities and obligations of an accredited laboratory,” the ANAB letter stated. “Under the current circumstances, suspension is a temporary measure pending formal withdrawal.”

DFS has 30 days from the date of the letter to appeal the suspension. The appeal triggers an investigation and then a nonpublic hearing by members of an ANAB panel who will resolve the matter by a majority vote.

The suspension of the lab’s accreditation is uncommon and it’s unclear what will happen if DFS loses its appeal as well as how its substantial caseload of forensic testing would be handled.

Under the D.C. legislation creating DFS as an independent agency, the lab is required to be accredited.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a news conference Monday her administration would be “fully defending” the lab’s practices but that she wanted a full investigation into the issues raised.

Federal prosecutors and the D.C. attorney general’s office retained a team of three experts last spring to look into the lab’s firearms unit following the discovery of a series of errors that led to the lab erroneously linking cartridge casings from two 2015 killings to the same gun.

In that case, the team’s report alleges that once the lab was made aware of the error, examiners who were assigned to take another look at the evidence were pressured into issuing a finding of “inconclusive” even though an initial review by a lab supervisor had concluded the shell casings were not fired by the same gun.

The experts said their review turned up “very serious” concerns about lab management.

A motion to dismiss the indictments in both of those killings — filed by attorneys for Joseph Brown and Rondell McLeod, the two men charged in the killings — is still pending. During a hearing Tuesday, D.C. Superior Court Judge Milton C. Lee set a hearing for June 2 to hear arguments and to rule on the matter.

In an interview with WTOP last fall, Smith, the DFS director, defended the lab, stressing its independence from federal prosecutors as one of the few crime labs in the U.S. not formally affiliated with law enforcement. At the time, she also pointed to the lab’s accredited status.

The ANAB letter required DFS to notify customers and stakeholders — including D.C. police, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the attorney general’s office and the Public Defender Service — within seven days.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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