Prosecutors in state courts often depend on expert witnesses who are employed by state crime labs. Some of those labs have been criticized because the experts feel pressured to slant their testimony in ways that favor the prosecution. The labs have also been criticized for hiring experts without verifying their credentials and for failing to give the experts the training they need. In addition, state crime lab analysts have been criticized for failing to follow lab procedures to assure that test results are accurate.
Ohio is the most recent state to experience crime lab controversy. The lab has been subject to fourteen internal investigations in the last five years, but the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation recently made its escalating concerns about crime lab employees clear by suspending five analysts and firing another.
Ohio Crime Lab Controversy
The Columbus Dispatch reports that the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation “suspended five employees at state crime labs and fired another for not properly testing drug evidence collected by law enforcement.” The employees were forensic scientists or their supervisors.
The employee who was fired committed several violations of lab policy, including “egregious case documentation.” One suspended employee failed to make a proper record of drug test results 23 times over a 6-month period. Another employee was “dishonest when summarizing findings.”
Prior to the most recent suspensions, a BCI lab analyst was suspended because she deliberately contaminated evidence before it could be tested for DIA. The employee, a fingerprint examiner, was allegedly envious because “the DNA section gets all the attention.”
While BCI’s director claims the mistakes did not compromise any criminal investigations, he may be putting a favorable spin on bad news. Defense attorneys who cross-examine crime lab experts during trials are likely to point out that experts who fail to follow one procedure may be failing to follow other procedures, calling the trustworthiness of their testimony into question. Certainly, the employee who was dishonest when summarizing test results has compromised his integrity and may therefore be less effective as an expert witness.
Lack of Objectivity
The latest round of discipline follows the Dispatch’s reporting in October 2016 of issues surrounding the employment of G. Michele Yezzo, a forensic scientist who retired in 2009. Yezzo was criticized by colleagues because “she wasn’t objective in her work and wanted to please law enforcement.”
Concerns that Yezzo slanted her testimony have prompted the Ohio public defender’s office and the Ohio Innocence Project to review thousands of cases in which Yezzo’s work contributed to a conviction. Yezzo testified as an expert witness in hundreds of those cases. At least one prisoner has been freed as a result of Yezzo’s misconduct.
Other convictions may be jeopardized, although most of the evidence that Yezzo tested was destroyed after the cases ended. If Yezzo lied about the test results in those cases, defendants may have a difficult time proving their innocence.
Yezzo’s retirement, however, was not prompted by her dishonesty, but by her failure to pass a proficiency test after 33 years of employment. Until that point, Yezzo’s competence was apparently not a concern to BCI, as long as she gave testimony that supported the prosecution.
Crime Lab Reform
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine contends that BCI is a professional and “ethically sound” organization. That contention is at odds with news reports of crime lab evidence that has been “lost, mishandled and contaminated.”
BCI Director Thomas Stickrath says those problems are being taken seriously, as the recent suspensions of lab personnel demonstrate. He says he has implemented tougher standards “to make sure that Ohio is on the forefront of forensic science.”
Solving the problem, however, might demand more than better training and closer supervision of experts. Crime lab personnel told the Dispatch that BCI discourages employees from reporting misconduct by other employees. Supervisors and scientists reportedly retaliated against employees who called attention to violations of procedures or standards. Meaningful reform will require a change in the crime lab’s culture as well as improving the professional competence of its expert employees.