DC public defenders seek wider review into fingerprints, firearms evidence

Federal and D.C. public defenders are calling on District officials to expand the review of past convictions involving fingerprints and firearms evidence following a series of highly publicized failures at the Department of Forensic Sciences.

In a Jan. 24 letter, officials with the Federal Public Defender Service and D.C.’s Public Defender Service, said the review of cases involving fingerprints and firearms should go back to at least 1995, which predates the creation of the independent crime lab. At that time, forensic examiners with the D.C. police department handled fingerprints and firearms cases.

In a sweeping report issued last month, a forensic consulting company commissioned by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser after the lab was stripped of its accreditation to perform forensic testing, recommended the District reexamine all cases handled by the D.C. crime lab’s fingerprints and firearms units dating back to the creation of the crime lab in 2012.

The public defenders, however, said the review of past cases should extend back even further, since many of the lab’s early employees were D.C. police employees who were “grandfathered” into the new agency without a meaningful screening or selection process to ensure they were qualified.

For example, the report commissioned by the mayor found that only two of eleven latent fingerprint examiners who transitioned to DFS in 2012 passed a skills test to establish they met minimum competency requirements.

The defense attorneys’ letter also notes that one of the firearms examiners whose faulty work first exposed errors in the Firearms Examination Unit — by falsely linking cartridge casings from two different crime scenes to the same gun — began working at the D.C. police department in 1995.

Following the release of the consultants’ report last month, Bowser tasked D.C. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart with leading a panel of stakeholders in the criminal justice system to plan how the massive re-examination of past cases will be carried out.

The panel is expected to identify an “independent project executive” to essentially act as a case manager for the mass retesting of fingerprints and firearms evidence that could entail reopening hundreds or even thousands of old cases.

The first meeting was held Dec. 22, and no case manager has yet been selected.

The defense attorneys’ letter presses for a completely independent case manager with a “proven absence of conflict of interest,” meaning the person who fills the role should not have any previous or current contracts or relationships with either DFS or any of the stakeholders or be in an industry or field that competes for contracts with the D.C. government or federal Justice Department.

“Given the scope of this project, there will doubtless be time and resource pressures and disagreements amongst stakeholders about testing priorities,” the letter stated. “It is critical, therefore, that the independent project executive be insulated from inappropriate influence and that the public trust that the process is transparent and decisions are made based on named criteria alone.”

The defense lawyers’ letter said the case manager should also have previously managed a project of similar scale and have a demonstrated understanding of the role cognitive bias plays in pattern-matching disciplines, such as ballistics comparisons and latent fingerprint analysis.

“Given the subjective nature of the fingerprint and firearms disciplines, the ongoing controversy regarding the scientific validity of these fields, and the well-documented problem of confirmation and other cognitive biases, it is crucial that the independent project executive coordinating such a large-scale retesting effort be uniquely qualified to implement and oversee rigorous procedures to minimize bias and human factors errors,” the letter stated.

For example, the letter recommends that independent forensic science service providers conduct re-examinations, meaning they are not housed within law enforcement agencies and that separate providers be used for the initial examination and the verification of those results.

A letter earlier this month from a team of forensic experts retained by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Attorney General also recommended expanding the scope of the review to include older cases involving fingerprints, citing the failed competency assessment cited in the SNA report.

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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