The magic bullets: How the issues in the D.C. crime lab could affect past and future convictions
Updated: Oct 20
In 2013, the Massachusetts state crime labs were rocked by two major scandals involving two chemists: Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak. As Netflix’s How to Fix a Drug Scandal portrays, both chemists meddled with evidence in a way that undermined the cases of many people convicted of drug-related offenses. Now, it appears that the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS) may be on the brink of a similar scandal, but regarding ballistic evidence.
Federal prosecutors in D.C. have opened an audit into the handling of ballistic evidence by the DFS after the discovery of a faulty analysis that linked two killings. When exactly the audit started is unknown, even to the director of DFS. The cases that prompted the audit involved two separate ballistics analyses, one done in 2016 and the other completed in 2017. Both were faulty. The faulty analysis was used to indict Joseph Brown and Rondell McLeod whose cases are still making their way through the D.C. court system. Prosecutors discovered the error in January, when they had the evidence reexamined by an outside expert who came to the exact opposite conclusion of DFS. Initially, DFS denied the error and only acknowledged it after several months and characterized it as an “administrative error.”
It has been reported that out of 60 reviewed cases there were discrepancies found in 12 cases. The very existence of this audit has caused ripples through the court system, as it could change how defense attorneys argue their cases. Currently, only the interim report from the U.S. Attorney’s audit team is available. The interim report is only five pages long and does not include notes or documentation. In a hearing in November, D.C. Superior Court Judge Todd Edelman ruled that DFS must turn over 24 separate documents, and said he found the result of the audit so far “fairly startling.”
The D.C. crime lab’s director has responded recently by contesting even the use of the word audit. The director states it is more accurately described as a case review; however, the U.S. Attorney’s office has continued to describe it as an audit. This is not the first audit that the lab has undergone. From 2014 to 2015, an audit into how the lab was processing DNA evidence led to a temporary suspension of the lab’s DNA casework. The director stated, “This is so not the DNA thing. Trust me — I was brought in for the DNA thing. I know the DNA thing very well.” While the director has now admitted that a mistake was made, she states that many of the other cases pointed to in the interim report can be classified as “gray area” differences where experts may reasonably disagree. She states that the “differences of opinion, when they are not direct contradictions, are simply a part of the nature of some fields of forensic science that rely on pattern matching.”
What this audit will mean for cases in D.C. is still unclear; however, the existence of the audit itself demonstrates that science is not human proof. Even in an independent lab like DFS, humans can still make mistakes. Forensic ballistic analysis does have gray areas like the director mentioned, and it is vital for those gray areas to be disclosed when a report goes out. If it is not a clear call, the experts should be required to say why they chose one conclusion over another and acknowledge that it is possible to come to a different conclusion. All this information should be disclosed to the defense especially if it shows there is scientific doubt about the conclusion of the analysis; this information would fall under Brady as exculpatory evidence, and aide defense attorneys in representing their clients. Just because someone is a scientific expert witness does not mean they cannot make a mistake. Analysis and scientific conclusions presented in court are not infallible and should be reviewed and challenged rigorously to avoid wrongful convictions. Additionally, an independent commission should monitor labs; like the forensic science commission in Texas. The Texas Commission has nine members made up of a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and seven scientists; it investigates allegations of professional negligence or professional misconduct that would substantially affect the integrity of the results of a forensic analysis conducted by an accredited laboratory. All members are appointed by the governor. The Commission also develops and implements a reporting system through which accredited laboratories may report professional negligence or misconduct. Mistakes will be made, but the important thing is to admit them and work to fix them.