Junk-science crisis in crime labs
Junk science endangers lives. Forensic junk science threatens liberty.
There is a long-festering and systemic crisis in America's government-run crime labs, not just a few rogue operators. In April, Massachusetts state crime lab chemist Annie Dookhan made national headlines after investigations and lawsuits over her misconduct prompted that state's Supreme Judicial Court to order the largest dismissal of criminal convictions in U.S. history — 21,000-plus drug cases. Dookhan pleaded guilty to dozens of charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and tampering with evidence. Hundreds of convictions were tossed on appeal. Dookhan served a measly three years in prison.
Another Massachusetts state crime lab worker, Sonja Farak, pilfered and ingested drugs she was supposed to test over an eight-year period. Two former assistant attorney generals covered up for Farak and misled a judge, who last month dismissed several cases tainted by her. Upwards of 10,000 prosecutions may eventually be overturned. Farak received a mere 18-month jail sentence, plus five years' probation. The two assistant AGs left their jobs for higher-paying government positions.
Similar horror stories have spread from the New York City medical examiner's office and the Nassau County, N.Y., police department forensic evidence bureau to the crime labs of West Virginia; Harris County, Texas; North Carolina; and jurisdictions in nearly 20 other states.
Many state crime labs and police departments are ill-equipped and inadequately trained to interpret DNA evidence, especially “touch” or “trace” DNA — minute amounts of unknown origin, often transferred through incidental contact — which has resulted in miscarriages of justice against innocent people. The aura of infallibility conferred by “CSI”-style TV shows exacerbates the problem when juries place undue weight on indeterminate DNA evidence.
Dark history seems to be repeating itself at the Oklahoma City Police Department, home of the late forensic faker Joyce Gilchrist, who conjured mountains of phony DNA evidence out of whole cloth in collaboration with an out-of-control district attorney over two ruinous decades. Gilchrist, whose tainted testimony sent 11 inmates to their deaths, passed away two years ago, unpunished and unrepentant.
Now, nearly a quarter-century after Gilchrist's misconduct was exposed, Oklahoma City has been rocked by secret hearings held a few weeks ago in the case of former Oklahoma City policeman Daniel Holtzclaw, convicted in 2015 of multiple sexual assaults after being railroaded by incompetent and biased detectives, a crime lab analyst's sloppy testimony and a DA's office more concerned about social justice than seeking the truth. Jurors were misled with false assertions about trace skin-cell DNA tied to one accuser and found on Holtzclaw's pants. At least two jurors publicly stated that the shoddy DNA evidence persuaded them of Holtzclaw's guilt.
Secrecy about the crime lab crisis is a toxic recipe for more wrongful convictions. The solution lies in greater transparency, external scrutiny, stiffer criminal penalties and real financial consequences for forensic fraudsters and fakers. It's time to incentivize more whistleblowers instead of more destructive witch hunts.
Michelle Malkin is host of “Michelle Malkin Investigates” on CRTV.com.