More than nine months after the D.C. crime lab lost its accreditation to perform forensic casework, the amount of DNA evidence from D.C. crimes uploaded to a national database — which can be used to link crimes and identify unknown perpetrators — has dropped significantly, according to testimony before a D.C. Council committee.
That was one of the impacts of the loss of accreditation on the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences discussed during an annual oversight hearing Thursday.
The hearing comes as the District is aiming to implement major reforms at the crime lab. A sweeping report, conducted by a forensic consulting firm released last month, recommended reexamining every case handled by the lab’s fingerprints and firearms units going back to the inception of the lab 10 years ago.
While Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairman Charles Allen discussed the agency’s plans for the future, much of the at-times pointed questioning Thursday focused on what he called the “deep impacts” on the criminal justice as the lab currently sits sidelined.
For months, nearly all evidence — including DNA, fingerprints and firearms evidence — is being shipped to private labs or other federal agencies to be analyzed, since the D.C. lab is forbidden by law from examining evidence without having its accreditation.
However, DNA uploads to the FBI-run CODIS database cannot be handled by private labs, meaning DFS has had to turn to other state-run labs for help — in this case, Connecticut and Wyoming.
Still, statistics provided by Interim Director Anthony Crispino during the hearing indicate a sharp drop in the number of profiles uploaded to the database, which is a key investigative tool used to link crimes and to identify potential perpetrators.
Since the lab’s accreditation was withdrawn, a total of 429 DNA profiles stemming from D.C. crimes have been deemed eligible to be uploaded to the database to search for potential matches.
However, just 51 profiles were sent to either Connecticut or Wyoming to be uploaded to the system. (And of those 51, for unspecified reasons, just 37 were actually uploaded to CODIS, Crispino said.)
Crispino said law enforcement is prioritizing homicides and sexual violence cases and that triaging and prioritizing cases was common even before the lab lost accreditation.
“Every lab has a finite amount of bandwidth, and within that bandwidth, somebody has to give us parameters about what they want investigated over another case,” he said.
Allen responded, “It can’t be lost that we have less capacity, dramatically less capacity, to do the job than we did previously. All of this has a direct link to public safety. And I think we owe it to the public to be very transparent about what the actual impacts are.”
During his testimony Thursday, Crispino also said the agency’s Digital Evidence Unit and Forensic Chemistry Unit have not processed any evidence since the lab’s accreditation was withdrawn last spring and the evidence typically handled by those two units is not routinely being sent out to private or other government labs to be analyzed, as other evidence is.
Evidence that would typically come to the Digital Evidence Unit includes phones, laptops and built-in navigation and entertainment systems in cars.
“I believe that evidence is just on hold,” Crispino.
Allen responded: “I remember being walked around on tours over at DFS and shown all the incredible things being done with digital evidence from vehicles that are taken after a carjacking, from cellphones, all the digital evidence that then goes toward criminal cases … We’re not doing any of that?”
“There are phones there, but they’re not being opened up; they’re not being processed,” Crispino said.
“It boggles my mind that we are nine, 10 months into this and there has not been a solution found,” Allen said. “That is not acceptable … I think it will impact pending cases; I think it will impact closure rates; I think it will impact the administration of justice on all sides. And I’m shocked that there is no solution in place.”
Evidence is also on hold in the lab’s Forensic Chemistry Unit, Crispino said, but there is a plan there to ship evidence to an outside lab. That effort was slowed by a paperwork issue relating to the transfer of controlled substances across state lines, Crispino said.
Later, in an appearance before the same committee, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart said there had been no slowdown or impact on the processing of digital evidence because the D.C. police can rely on the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives task forces to handle any digital evidence needs.
“They have the capacity in any case that they need to use digital evidence for; they can go through their task force and get that done,” Geldart said, adding that there were no delays processing digital evidence.
Still, Geldart said, “We need to get our lab back. That’s what we need to do.”
Lab will seek to get clean bill of health for 2 units by spring
Crispino, who was appointed by Mayor Muriel Bowser in May after the previous lab director resigned, said the agency is working on long-term reforms for improving quality assurance and management.
But he said the agency also planned to seek independent reaccreditation this spring of the Forensic Biology Unit, which handles the DNA evidence, and the Forensic Chemistry Unit, which tests seized drugs, because only minor problems were uncovered there in the audit released last month.
Crispino said the lab will apply for recertification of those two units this spring despite concerns raised earlier this month by a team of forensic experts retained by federal prosecutors and the D.C. attorney general’s office, who urged against the move until broader reforms were in place.
Crispino said the agency can handle both tasks at the same time, saying the agency is already moving toward hiring a chief forensic science officer position.
“The accreditation process is not something that happens overnight,” he said. “It’s a fairly lengthy process … So while we were gearing up for reapplying, we’re also working on the other issues as well.”
Even if those two units are given the all-clear, it doesn’t mean they would immediately jump back into casework, Crispino said, until the concerns first raised by prosecutors and the attorney general’s office two years ago are addressed.
He said he would be meeting with the forensic experts retained by prosecutors next week to hear their concerns.
Overall, Crispino said morale at the agency is improving and he highlighted some “bright spots” in the Public Health Lab — a separate unit of the department — that has played a key role during the COVID-19 pandemic, including during the current omicron surge.
“This is not easy,” Allen said. “It’s hard to take over an entity that suffered some pretty significant failures. But I do appreciate that you’ve put your hand up and you’ve come in to take the helm of an entity that is in trouble.”
Still, throughout the hearing, he expressed frustration with what he characterized as a lack of urgency in handling some of the needed reforms.
Crispino responded, “My only goal in this is to make the agency better for the residents of the District of Columbia and ensure the fair and impartial administration of justice. That’s what this is about. This isn’t about me … This is making sure that the agency gets back up on its feet.”
Attorney general: Trust in lab ‘eviscerated’
In a sharply worded letter sent Thursday to Allen and several other members of the D.C. Council, Attorney General Karl Racine, who has been one of the most vocal District officials on the matter of management failures at the lab, said trust in DFS “has been eviscerated,” and that there still has not been an accurate accounting of what went wrong at the lab.
“The deficiencies at DFS are unprecedented in their scope and nature and evince failures of leadership both within and above DFS,” Racine wrote, adding: “To ensure these failures are not repeated, the Council should insist on a full recounting of events, accountability for wrongdoers, and the implementation of reforms that are comprehensive and sufficiently independent to rebuild confidence in DFS.”
In the letter, Racine said the extensive effort to review fingerprints and firearms cases means the District has already, essentially, wasted millions of taxpayer dollars since the original analysis has turned out to be “unusable and unreliable.”
While the process for determining how past cases will be reexamined is ongoing, Racine said he is urging the review process to be “sufficiently independent” from the mayor’s office and include input from criminal justice stakeholders.
“That is because, rather than take responsibility for errors, the Executive throughout this crisis has obfuscated, scapegoated prosecutors, and misrepresented facts,” Racine wrote.
In his appearance before Allen’s committee, Geldart, the deputy mayor, said he is committed to finding consensus on the way forward.
“We need to find consensus on what we’re going to do. Because it can’t be a decision from me; it can’t be a decision from Director Crispino; for that matter, it can’t be a decision from the mayor. She’ll make it in the end. But I think we need to find some consensus in this of what it truly needs to be, or else we’re doomed to repeat.”