Director of embattled DC crime lab stepping down

DFS Director Jenifer Smith testifies before the D.C. Council Feb 6, 2020.

The director of the embattled D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences is stepping down.

Dr. Jenifer Smith, who was appointed to run the lab by Mayor Muriel Bowser in 2015, submitted her resignation to the mayor Wednesday, amid rising calls from District officials for her to step aside.

Under Smith’s watch, the forensic lab came under increasing scrutiny following the discovery of a series of errors in the crime lab’s Firearms Examination Unit, a turn of events that eventually led to an ongoing criminal investigation and the withdrawal of the lab’s accreditation to perform a wide range of forensic testing earlier this spring.

Smith’s last day at the agency will be May 26, according to a statement to WTOP from Acting Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Chris Geldart.

“We thank Dr. Smith for her service and appreciate the job she has done in progressing the agency during her tenure,” Geldart said in the statement. “We remain firmly committed to the priorities of an independent lab; the timely collection, evaluation, and processing of criminal evidence; and high-quality public health analysis.”

Geldart’s statement did not provide a reason for her resignation.

News partners NBC Washington first reported news of Smith’s resignation Wednesday afternoon before a note had even gone out to DFS staff. One DFS staff member told WTOP they learned of the director’s resignation on the news and said there had been no communication to DFS staff about Smith’s departure from the agency even after the deputy mayor’s statement had been released to several media organizations.

It’s unclear who will lead the agency after May 26 or if there will be any other staff changes at the agency.

A spokeswoman for the deputy mayor’s office did not immediately respond to an additional request for comment.

Last week, both D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and Ward 6 D.C. Council Member Charles Allen called for new leadership at the lab.

In a statement to WTOP Wednesday evening, Allen, who chairs the D.C. Council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said of Smith’s resignation, “I think it’s the right move and new leadership will allow the agency a chance to chart a path back to being the independent and trusted lab that our city needs.”

In a statement to WTOP Wednesday, Racine, said: “Dr. Smith’s departure from DFS is an important first step in addressing the substantial issues that led to the decision of the local and federal prosecutors to cease using the lab and its accreditation being stripped. We look forward to working with the mayor, law enforcement partners, and defense counsel to rehabilitate DFS.”

In a letter last week, Racine, the District’s top legal officer, had called for broad changes to the  lab’s leadership and asked the mayor to take “immediate action.”

Jessica Willis, special counsel for forensics at the D.C. Public Defender Service, said her office agreed that Smith’s resignation is only a first step in changes they want to see at the lab.

“There is much more work to be done to reform the broken systems that led us to this moment,” Willis said in a statement to WTOP. “We look forward to working with all stakeholders to create a truly transparent, accountable, and independent lab.”

Last month, the Public Defender Service called on the D.C. Council to improve oversight and boost transparency by strengthening the panel of science advisers tasked with investigating quality issues at the lab. PDS has said the U.S. Attorney’s Office enjoys “outsized access and influence” over the lab’s practices and hasn’t always disclosed issues to defense attorneys.

News of Smith’s resignation was also applauded by the union that represents rank-and-file DFS employees.

“We’re very pleased to hear that the mayor accepted Dr. Smith’s resignation,” said Lee Blackmon, director of the National Association of Government Employees Federal Division. “It’s a long time coming, and I’m just surprised it took this long.”

The union has clashed with DFS management in the past over workplace conditions and what the union characterizes as mismanagement and unethical behavior.

Blackmon added, “We look forward to working with the leadership of DFS for the betterment of the employees who work so diligently to serve the District of Columbia residents and also to restore the faith and confidence of the District’s Department of Forensic Sciences. ”

Accreditation revoked

The latest blow to the agency came May 2 when the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB), which had earlier suspended the lab’s accreditation to perform a wide range of forensic testing, withdrew the lab’s accreditation entirely.

The lab is challenging the withdrawal of its accreditation.

The accreditation, which covers the examination of everything from DNA and fingerprints to firearms and digital evidence, has sidelined entire units of the agency, which has turned to private labs and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to handle its casework. The lab is required to be accredited under D.C. law.

The accrediting board’s decision came after a scathing report from a team of experts hired by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C. and the D.C. attorney general’s office to review the work of the lab’s Firearms Examination Unit, following the discovery of a series of errors at the lab that prosecutors said falsely linked cartridge casings from two 2015 killings to the same gun. WTOP was the first to report on the dispute between prosecutors and the lab.

The experts’ report, disclosed in D.C. Superior Court in late March, alleged that senior lab managers concealed conflicting findings and pressured examiners, who were tasked with looking into the error, to reach an “inconclusive” finding on the matter.

The accrediting board called the report “credible evidence” the lab had engaged in “fraudulent behavior.” Several months before pulling the lab’s accreditation, ANAB said it had looked into complaints raised by prosecutors and found them “not valid.”

The D.C. Office of the Inspector General is conducting a criminal investigation into the lab that apparently remains ongoing.

Testifying at a D.C. Council oversight hearing April 29, Racine said his office is already beginning preliminary work to identify past convictions in which DFS examiners conducted scientific analyses as part of a post-conviction review, saying the allegations against the lab strike at the heart of the District’s criminal justice system.

The two cases in which the error was discovered — launching the initial investigation of the lab — are both now being challenged. Lawyers for Rondell McLeod are seeking to dismiss the murder indictment against him. A hearing in D.C. Superior Court is set for June 2.

Smith had been invited to testify at last month’s oversight hearing but did not appear, apparently at the request of the mayor’s office.

In her only public comments since the lab lost its accreditation, Smith told a panel of the lab’s science advisers April 30 that the lab had prepared a “robust” appeal challenging ANAB’s decision to withdraw its accreditation and that she was confident the lab would regain accreditation.

“We’re going to open up again. That’s not going to be an issue,” she said, adding that she would need the science advisers’ help with branding and marketing of the lab in the future.

Despite multiple requests from WTOP, the agency’s appeal has not been made public.

However, in an email to DFS staff last week, Smith said the national accrediting board informed the lab it would move forward with an investigation and a hearing to consider the lab’s appeal.

“Everyday I am able to come to work as the Director of DFS is a blessing to me and something that I look forward to experiencing,” Smith wrote in the May 14 note to staff.

In an interview with WTOP last fall, Smith defended her agency as “a darn good lab,” and said the broader dispute with prosecutors over the firearms unit’s casework stemmed from differences in interpretation that are common in some fields of forensic science. She also suggested the lab’s “inconclusive” findings indicated its examiners were more conservative in reaching conclusions about evidence than prosecutors preferred.

Appointed in 2015 amid earlier crisis

Smith, a DNA expert and 20-year veteran of the FBI, took over running the D.C. lab during an earlier period of crisis, after the lab’s DNA unit was temporarily shut down in 2015 and a slew of former officials were ousted.

Before being appointed agency director, Smith worked as a consultant and helped implement reforms in the DNA unit.

By the time she came to DFS in the summer of 2015, she had worked the Unabomber case at the FBI crime lab and served in the agency’s weapons of mass destruction unit.

However, as WTOP reported last month, several current and former DFS employees eventually grew critical of Smith’s leadership of the D.C. lab. Multiple former and current employees said Smith presided over what became a “toxic workplace,” in which employees felt pressured to bury problems and not raise concerns.

Some employees took their concerns over Smith’s leadership to other officials in Bowser’s administration and to members of the D.C. Council.

Smith has enjoyed strong support from the mayor up through the May 19 announcement of her resignation.

On March 30 — just a few days after the allegations against lab leadership were publicly reported through court filings and three days before the lab’s accreditation was suspended — Bowser honored Smith as part of the “Washington Women of Excellence Awards.”

A few days after the lab’s accreditation was suspended, Bowser said the city would be “fully defending” the lab’s practices to the accrediting board.

When Bowser was asked earlier this month if she still had confidence in Smith’s leadership of the lab given its loss of accreditation, Bowser appeared reluctant to give a definitive answer.

“I think we have a question to ask ourselves as a District, and that is if we want an independent forensics lab or not,” Bowser said. “And to be honest with you, the questions around that, I am still wrestling with.”

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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