Following the release last month of a sweeping report into failures at the D.C. crime lab, District officials are moving forward with a plan that could see the lab’s DNA and chemistry units cleared to conduct forensic work again by the spring.
Now, a team of forensic experts advising federal prosecutors and the D.C. attorney general’s office — who first uncovered evidence of mistakes and missteps at the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences — are urging against the move, saying broader reforms should be in place before the city seeks to have those two units reaccredited to perform forensic testing.
In response, D.C. Deputy Mayor Chris Geldart says he is receptive to the concerns of the prosecutors’ experts and is committed to finding consensus on how the troubled crime lab can be rehabilitated.
But he said the city can “walk and chew gum at the same time,” and said officials can work on long-lasting reforms at the same time they seek to have DNA and chemistry units recertified to analyze evidence.
In an interview with WTOP Tuesday, Geldart, who said he formally met with prosecutors and defense attorneys on other aspects of reforming the lab, said disagreements over how to move forward are to be expected.
“This is all of the process, maybe you could call it the sausage-making, of getting our lab back online and accredited and processing evidence,” he said.
Still the disagreements over the next steps in overhauling the lab indicate the complex challenges policymakers face. A D.C. Council committee is set to conduct an annual oversight hearing into the lab’s operations Jan. 20, and Mayor Muriel Bowser has set a March deadline for new legislation overhauling the lab’s operations.
‘We wholeheartedly disagree’
Bowser ordered the top-to-bottom audit of DFS after the lab lost its accreditation to perform forensic testing last spring, which halted the processing of all crime scene evidence. The former director resigned several weeks later.
The 157-page report from Virginia-based forensic consulting firm SNA International, released Dec. 13, recommended reexamining every case handled by the lab’s firearms and fingerprints units and called for wholesale changes to the agency’s leadership structure.
But the authors of that report said fewer problems were uncovered in the Forensic Biology Unit, which handles DNA casework, and the Forensic Chemistry Unit, which tests drugs, among other duties. The SNA report recommended both those units be reaccredited independently, which would allow them to more quickly resume operations.
In a Jan. 4 letter to U.S. Attorney for D.C. Matthew Graves and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, the three forensic experts who first raised alarms about the lab’s practices said they agree with the vast majority of the SNA report’s findings and recommendations, but not the plan to quickly restore those two units.
“We wholeheartedly disagree with this recommendation and instead recommend that DFS wait until appropriate leadership and quality infrastructure are in place,” they wrote.
“Indeed, many of the issues identified by SNA, and by us, were related to failed leadership and, consequently, a failed quality management system. Starting independent laboratories without first establishing appropriate overall leadership and a sound quality management system will not have the proper oversight, documentation, and conflict resolution in place to garner trust and confidence in DFS’s work product.”
The three experts are Bruce Budowle, director of the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas, one of the foremost DNA experts in the world; and James Carroll and Todd Weller, who are both forensic firearm and toolmark examiners.
The experts were first assembled by prosecutors as an ad hoc audit team in the spring of 2020 to probe a ballistics error in an ongoing murder case, in which multiple DFS examiners incorrectly linked cartridge casings from two different 2015 shootings to the same gun.
Regarding the plan to expedite the reaccreditation of the DNA and drug units, the experts wrote that, in addition to apparently systemic problems across the lab, SNA’s own report turned up some problems within the DNA unit, dealing with its validation data for interpreting complex DNA mixtures.
“Our assessment of the issues identified by SNA indicates that some are quite substantial and may require further root cause analysis to determine effective corrective actions,” the experts wrote. “Until the needed reforms and an appropriately robust quality management system are implemented, no forensic units within DFS should apply for accreditation and resume casework.”
Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C., told WTOP on Monday that office will follow the guidance of its experts, and its prosecutors “will not rely on opinions from DFS until these broader concerns have been addressed, even if DFS gets accredited for DNA or chemistry.”
In a statement Monday evening, Racine said: “We appreciate SNA’s work, but our experts believe — and we agree — that SNA’s recommendations do not go far enough, and that additional reforms are necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific testing and results going forward at DFS. Our experts’ recommendations are necessary to restore the integrity of the evidence used in our criminal justice system.”
Geldart said he has spoken with the U.S. Attorney about the experts’ letter and even invited the three experts to a meeting to share their concerns directly.
“We’re going to ask them in and talk with us, because there are some differing views on how you could do certain parts of this.” He added: “But I want to bring the folks together to say, ‘OK, what makes the most sense for us to do?’”
In his statement, the attorney general also criticized prior lab leadership and the Bowser administration for being too slow to react to problems at the lab, first raised by prosecutors nearly two years ago.
“Rather than take responsibility and immediately remediate the problems, the administration falsely blamed prosecutors for seeking to unfairly influence DFS,” he said. “The repercussions on the criminal justice system from this preventable failure may have resulted in wrongful convictions and wrongdoers escaping criminal liability.”
In the interview, Geldart said he wants to lower the rhetoric surrounding the troubled agency.
“We all have the same goal, which is to have an independent lab that is able to function appropriately and do what it needs to do and be accredited … there will be differences of opinions on things,” he said. “But before we make decisions, we’re going to make sure we have consensus among our partners, as best we can get it.”
The deputy mayor convened a meeting Dec. 22 of prosecutors and defense attorneys to begin a discussion of next steps for a plan to reexamine potentially thousands of cases involving the lab’s fingerprints and firearms units. It’s unclear how long it will take to conduct such a review or how much it will cost taxpayers.
The SNA report recommended reexamining every case handled by those two units since the lab was created as an independent agency in 2012.
However, in their letter, the prosecutors’ experts said, the review of past casework should go back even further, at least concerning the fingerprint unit.
The SNA report found that when DFS was created as an independent agency, 11 fingerprints examiners were transferred from the D.C. police crime lab, which was being shuttered, to staff the new agency. Only two of those 11 employees who were “grandfathered” into DFS passed a skills assessment, according to the SNA report.
“If examiners who transferred to DFS lacked necessary skills at the time of transfer, they likely lacked those skills prior to the transfer,” the letter stated.
Geldart said no decisions have been made on expanding the scope of the review.
Should the director be a scientist?
The prosecutors’ experts also took issue with the SNA report’s recommendations for changes to executive leadership at the lab.
Under the still-active 2011 law that created DFS, the director must have an advanced degree in forensics or a related science field. SNA recommended amending qualifications to no longer require experience in forensic science, but to require a background in business or law with extensive management experience — preferably in D.C. government.
The SNA report also recommended the creation of a chief forensic science officer position specifically to oversee the crime’s lab’s operations.
The team of experts advising prosecutors said the qualifications for the director position shouldn’t be loosened.
“The Executive Director will be overseeing a major scientific operation, and therefore will often have to arbitrate scientific issues within the DFS. We are concerned that a person with a background in law and/or business will lack the necessary scientific and quality assurance foundations for these important decisions.”
If navigating the D.C. government bureaucracy is seen as essential, then the lab could create a chief of staff position to handle that role, the experts wrote: “This structure would ensure that final decisions are science and quality-based.”
Geldart said he wants to hear from all stakeholders about rewriting the qualifications for the lab director.
A retooled focus on management experience could be warranted based on the history of the lab.
“We have to also look at lessons that we’ve learned over the last seven, eight years with our laboratory to see where successes and failures have come.
Any changes to the qualifications of the DFS director will require action by the D.C. Council, since the current qualifications are already spelled out in law.
Bowser has set a deadline of March 16 for DFS overhaul legislation.