Sweeping report urges DC to review every case handled by firearms, fingerprint units at troubled crime lab

( )

D.C. is poised to review every case conducted by the Department of Forensic Sciences’ firearms and fingerprint units since the inception of the independent crime lab nearly 10 years ago, following the recommendations of a sweeping new report into the operations of the troubled agency released Monday night.

The 157-page report, dated Dec. 8 and completed by forensic consulting firm SNA International, calls for a wholesale restructuring of agency management. The report points to a series of failures across the lab, as well as a deficient quality-management system that failed to fix recurring high-risk problems, and a culture where employees felt they couldn’t speak up about problems.

The report was ordered by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in late May, after the lab lost its accreditation to perform forensic testing amid allegations lab managers concealed conflicting findings in a murder case and the former director resigned.

In an interview with WTOP on Monday night, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart said the report — and its voluminous findings — speaks for itself.

“I’m focused right now on how we go forward and make sure we don’t get us to a place where we are now,” Geldart said.

According to an order issued by the mayor in response to the SNA International report, Geldart is tasked with bringing together a committee made up of officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Office of the Attorney General, the Public Defender Service for D.C., the District of Columbia Auditor and the chair of the D.C. Council’s Public Safety and Justice Committee, among several others, to review the likely thousands of cases handled by the Firearms Examination Unit and the Latent Fingerprint Unit since the crime lab opened as an independent agency in 2012.

Both the attorney general’s office, which prosecutes juvenile cases in the District, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes adult felonies, had pledged to conduct post-conviction reviews to determine if faulty forensics work contributed to wrongful convictions.

Geldart said the group would look at all cases handled by the fingerprint and gun units. “But not all cases may be relevant to the integrity of justice,” he said.

He said the group would “winnow” down the cases to those that may have been decided on the evidence processed by the Firearms Examination Unit or the Fingerprint Unit and those would be formally re-examined.

It’s possible re-examination would yield the same finding originally rendered by DFS. “In which case, nothing changes,” he said. “If they’re not the same, then those are ones that we’re going to have to work with our stakeholders to determine what do we need to do in those cases.”

In a statement Tuesday morning, D.C. Council Member Charles Allen, who chairs the public safety and justice committee and will be a part of the review committee, said he’s concerned about the integrity of criminal cases handled by DFS and predicted a “very long road ahead” to restoring confidence in the lab.

“Arrests, charges, and convictions are called into question, which will have significant impacts on defendants and victims. It will require a thorough review, the scope of which is difficult to appreciate in this moment — but it will be extensive,” he said in a statement.

Overall, Allen said, the SNA report shows “dangerous leadership failures within and above the agency, a dysfunctional culture, incompetence, and lack of internal controls and organization. It is difficult to express the gravity of the report’s findings and recommendations for the District’s criminal justice system — particularly on defendants, crime survivors and victims, and their loved ones.”

DNA, drug units could be operational by spring

Under a course of action recommended in the report, DFS plans to correct a few minor deficiencies in its Forensic Biology Unit, which performs DNA casework, and the Forensic Chemistry Unit, which analyzes drug cases.

Geldart said the aim is to have them individually reaccredited by the ANSI National Accreditation Board by the spring — nearly a year after the entire forensic lab halted casework because of the yanked accreditation.

Regarding the future of the firearms unit and the fingerprint unit where deep-seated problems in analysts’ casework were uncovered, Geldart said, “We may not bring them back into our lab. There’s a lot of work we need to do here to look back at cases.”

For now, the lab’s firearms casework is handled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the lab’s cases involving fingerprints cases are sent to private forensic contractors to complete.

“We’re going to continue to outsource them until we either feel comfortable to bring them back or not back at all,” Geldart said.

The lab’s firearms unit was disbanded in September after all 11 remaining members were laid off, which Interim Director Anthony Crispino said was in response to early findings from the SNA experts.

‘Missed opportunity’

The SNA report largely validates the findings of a scathing audit conducted by a team of experts retained by the Office of Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C.

That report, disclosed in D.C. Superior Court in late March, alleged multiple firearm analysts falsely linked cartridge casings from two 2015 killings to the same gun, and that senior managers looking into the error buried a conflicting, exculpatory “elimination” finding and instead reported a finding of “inconclusive.”

The initial error connecting the two casings “is so disparate from the correct conclusion of elimination that it represents a significant issue relating to the competence of those examiners,” the new report stated, and management “compounded the erroneous identification by applying undue influence upon the firearms examiners.”

The report cited inadequate training of analysts in the firearms unit and pressure to maintain high case numbers that forced examiners to spend hours performing ballistics comparison on a microscope “pushing for productivity at high levels.”

The report did not specifically recommend disbanding the firearms unit.

Systemic issues related to training and a lack of technical competence uncovered in the firearms case also plagued other units, including the Latent Fingerprint Unit, according to the report. The report said a review of cases there found analysts were repeatedly botching the first stage of the analysis, determining fingerprints lifted from crime scenes were of “no value” and not analyzing them further.

When DFS recently sent 45 cases to be analyzed by a private contractor, the outside expert found that DFS examiners improperly evaluated the prints in all but three of the cases.

Pointing to the apparently long-running nature of the problems uncovered, the report singled out what it calls a “missed opportunity” nearly a decade ago when the crime lab was first being stood up as an independent agency.

Fingerprint examiners, who were largely “grandfathered” into the agency from the D.C. Police Department, took skills tests conducted by an outside contractor before they transitioned to the then-new crime lab in late 2012. Only two of the 11 participants passed the assessment, findings which were detailed in a letter from the contractor to a DFS official at the time.

Nevertheless, the report’s authors said they could find no evidence DFS took corrective action in response to the large number of failed skill assessments just as the agency was being formed, and there was no evidence the letter was maintained at DFS. SNA report authors obtained the 2012 letter from the contractor.

Rampant chain-of-custody discrepancies

The report also listed several lapses in the lab’s Digital Evidence Unit, which opened in 2017, and recommended an independent outside review its operations to determine whether casework should be reexamined.

In addition, the report found rampant discrepancies in records detailing the lab’s chain-of-custody practices — an essential, basic step in forensic investigations to the movement of evidence as it is analyzed and stored.

“Chain of custody errors have serious consequences and can render evidence critical to the just resolution of a criminal case inadmissible,” the report said, adding that the “lack of chain-of-custody records “compromises the legal weight of the evidence and may even result in probative evidence not being admitted into court.”

The report urged DFS to have both the Crime Scene Sciences Unit and the Central Evidence Unit assessed by an outside forensic consultant “as soon as possible.”

The crime scene unit, which collects evidence from crime scenes across the District, has never been accredited has continued working even as other units at the lab have been sidelined following the withdrawal of accreditation covering the rest of the lab.

“DFS must demonstrate that they can effectively protect evidence against loss, degradation, contamination, and tampering with proper packaging, seals, storage, and shipping
conditions,” the report stated.

Root causes identified

Overall, the report lists 10 “root causes” for the problems that led to the lab’s loss of accreditation.

“Executive leadership” is cited in eight of them — including a misinterpretation by lab leadership of the concept of independence as it relates to a crime lab untethered to a police department or a prosecutor’s office.

Under the leadership of previous director Dr. Jenifer Smith, the lab refused to cooperate with the audit team assembled by prosecutors to look into the ballistics error, characterizing it as an attack on the lab’s independence.

The report concluded “that DFS management may have misapplied the term independent, equating it to dictating their own actions without regard to the needs” of prosecutors, defense attorneys and other stakeholders in the criminal justice system, including those charged with crimes.

Senior leaders “did not consistently demonstrate the temperament required to navigate complex relationships” and were “unable to create an environment where they and the staff consistently demonstrated skills in conflict resolution both internal and external to the organization,” the report stated.

Another finding: “Executive Leadership did not create and facilitate an open and constructive environment to foster a culture of open dialogue and healthy debate.”

The report recommended a wholesale restructuring of the lab’s management structure, urging the creation of an executive director position with comprehensive management experience to lead the agency and the addition of a chief science officer position responsible for the nitty-gritty of forensic sciences and a new chief quality assurance officer position.

In addition, the report calls for boosting the power of an independent panel of scientific experts that advises DFS. During the cascading series of problems that led to the loss of accreditation this past spring, the Science Advisory Board was largely cut out of the process or given incomplete information.

The changes to the management structure and the Science Advisory Board requires legislative changes to the 2011 law that established DFS.

The mayor’s order calls for a legislative rewrite to be completed by March 16 so that it can be included in next year’s budget request.

The mayor reacts

At a press conference two days after the report’s release, the mayor responded to whether she shoulders any responsibility for the executive leadership failures as cited in the report. Two of the lab’s top leaders were mayoral appointees.

“Any issue in D.C. government points to me, okay, I’m the boss. And so if there is a problem identified in any D.C. government agency, you can rest assured that I will be the mover to fix it,” she told WTOP.

Bowser also said she is directing Geldart to bring the stakeholders together to form a working group and anticipates a review of cases.

“We do expect, as you know, and everyone should, that we review any cases that have been implicated by the report to make sure the administration of justice has been just,” she said.

AG: ‘We blew the whistle’

When the mayor tasked SNA with conducting the assessment of the lab in late May, she suggested prosecutors and the attorney general’s office shared blame for the lab’s troubles pointing to “institutional tensions” that led to “stalemates, miscommunications and questionable demands on DFS staff” by prosecutors.

But by and large, SNA’s report lay blame on lab leadership for failing to adequately investigate complaints, “possibly creating an appearance of indifference,” and becoming “increasingly insular in its business approach.”

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine said his office and federal prosecutors raised grave concerns about the lab’s operations more than a year ago. “With this report … we feel vindicated, because we blew the whistle,” Racine said of the SNA audit. “Others scapegoated.”

In a separate statement from his office the following day, Racine said his office and federal prosecutors first began raising concerns about the lab nearly two years and were met with “many months of downplaying and dismissing our concerns.” With the SNA audit, “we now have confirmation of some of our worst fears regarding the agency,” Racine said in the statement. “That report confirms the findings of the expert independent audit team OAG and USAO hired to audit the lab, and documents systemic failures throughout DFS, as well as top leadership within the Executive Office of the Mayor, that was ultimately responsible for capably managing the lab.”

Even before the release of the report, Racine’s office was planning to form a conviction review unit.

“The damning findings in this report indicate that the scope of this review may need to be even more extensive than we had feared, and raise the specter of wrongful convictions dating back years and the re-traumatization of victims of crime,” Racine said in the statement. “Going forward, the lab must develop and implement wholesale changes to its practices and culture.”

In a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C., spokesman Bill Miller said that office played a “crucial role” in first identifying the issues that have consumed the lab.

“The SNA report simply confirms the concerns we previously raised. We are heartened by the Mayor’s call for involving all of the stakeholders in a discussion about how we review the cases that need to be reviewed. Significantly, we have since 2020 paid the expense of having firearms evidence analyzed by outside experts and will continue to do so, in order to avoid introducing at trial expert opinions from DFS related to firearms.”

In its report, SNA said it formed a team of 13 forensic experts across a variety of disciplines, including firearms, DNA, fingerprints and lab management with an average 32 years of experience among them to complete the report.

SNA reviewed some 20,000 documents, case files, manuals and forms; observed DFS employees on the job; conducted 29 interviews with a total of nearly 50 people and sent a staff survey to all employees.

There were questions raised about how the company was chosen to perform the review and the potential for a conflict of interest after it was revealed over the summer that SNA had previously done work for the lab and was in the running for a large software-upgrade contract at the time it was awarded the audit contract. However, current lab leadership pledged the company would “wall off” its work on the two contracts to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The final SNA report was initially due by the end of September but was pushed back to the end of November.

Last week, Racine called on the mayor’s office to release the completed report, saying in a letter he would take legal action to obtain it if it were not publicly released.

In a response letter sent last week, Geldart said the District always intended on publicly releasing the report and that Racine’s letter seemed “aimed more at making a public point than advancing our common goal of restoring the viability of DFS operations and focusing on the critical work we do to further public safety in the District.”

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow WTOP on Twitter and Instagram to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2021 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

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.

Federal News Network Logo

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up