Judge: DC crime lab’s conduct ‘shameful,’ but murder case that exposed errors can continue

A judge on Friday called the D.C. crime lab’s handling of errors in the investigation of a 2015 double murder “shameful,” but ruled that the trials of the two defendants can continue.

“The conduct and the activity of the Department of Forensic Science is nothing short of shameful,” D.C. Superior Court Judge Milton Lee said Friday afternoon, ruling against a motion to dismiss the first-degree murder indictments against Rondell McLeod and Joseph Brown. Both men were charged with first-degree murder in two 2015 shooting deaths. The errors in their cases exposed serious forensics errors and missteps by the D.C. crime lab.

While agreeing that the ballistics evidence put before the grand jury that indicted the two men later turned out to be false and inaccurate, the judge said prosecutors were unaware of the faulty work at the time. The judge also said the grand jury heard substantial other evidence linking the two men to the shootings.

“This is not an instance where I can fairly conclude that the (prosecutors) engaged in some bad, malicious behavior,” Lee said.

Steve Kiersh, the attorney for McLeod, filed the motion to dismiss in 2020 and, in a filing last spring, said the faulty work amounted to “an outright intentional deception” on the lab’s part.

The judge’s ruling caps at least one part of a long-running legal saga over the forensic errors that eventually led to the loss of the lab’s accreditation and an ongoing effort to reexamine potentially hundreds of old cases handled by the lab.

The cases

The case at hand dates to 2017, when McLeod and Brown were both indicted in the shooting deaths two years prior of Amari Jenkins and Antwan Baker.

Initially, the cases were to be tried together, based in part on the ballistics analysis carried out by firearms examiners at DFS, who concluded cartridge casings found at both shootings were fired in the same gun.

Shortly before the two men were to go to trial in early 2020, however, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C. had the gun evidence reexamined by a series of outside experts who all concluded the casings could not have been fired in the same gun.

In the aftermath of the discovery of that error, the forensics lab, an independent D.C. agency, at first resisted admitting any mistake on its part and then chalked it up an administrative error, changing its finding to “inconclusive.”

Dissatisfied with the lab’s response, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the D.C. Attorney General’s Office later sought an outside audit of the lab, and subpoenaed documents from the lab.

The auditors’ final report, issued in March 2021, revealed a firearms examiner and a lab supervisor who were tasked with looking into the error at one point agreed that the casings could not have been fired in the same gun — but that finding was never disclosed to prosecutors. In addition, conflicting information was provided to the lab’s accrediting board, and there was evidence another examiner was pressured to change his finding.

In April 2021, the ANSI National Accreditation Board suspended the lab’s accreditation to perform forensic casework, citing credible evidence the lab had “deliberately concealed information” and “engaged in misrepresentations and fraudulent behavior.”

The director of the lab resigned last spring, and another report, commissioned by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, later urged the city to retest all cases involving fingerprints and firearms handled by the lab dating back to its inception in 2012, finding serious problems with quality control.

“What took place with the comparison in this case just should not have happened,” the judge said in his ruling Friday. “It was made worse by the actions of the leadership at DFS. And the fact that it’s taken this long to get to a resolution is due in part to the fact that DFS just did not cooperate voluntarily with all this and the court had to engage in issuing subpoenas and requiring disclosure of information.”

He added, “I’m not going to spend time talking about the impact it’s had on every segment of the criminal justice system, because you all know that, and it is nothing short of shameful the position that we find ourselves in, and it complicates just about every case that comes before me on this calendar and many of my colleagues.”

The judge said, however, dismissal of the indictment was not warranted because there was substantial other evidence in the case, which he reviewed before making his ruling. The other evidence includes witnesses who recognized both McLeod and Brown at the scene of one of the shootings, DNA evidence from cartridge casings, and video surveillance of a vehicle used in one of the shootings, linked to both men.

“While I condemn what happened at DFS — and I think we all should, because of the impact it had not just on this case but on cases across the entire criminal justice system — I simply cannot dismiss an indictment here,” Lee said, adding “there is sufficient evidence from which grand jurors could very reasonably conclude that there was probable cause to believe that these gentlemen were responsible.”

The cases are both set for trial in July 2023.

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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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