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Report criticizes U.S. crime labs

BY REGINA ZILBERMINTS | FEBRUARY 26, 2009 7:37 AM

The forensic-science system is “badly fragmented” and in need of reform, according to a national report, and local officials hope the findings will help move the field forward.

With the exception of DNA evidence, which has been proven reliable, the report — congressionally mandated and released by the National Academy of Sciences — said no forensic method has been able to link evidence with a perpetrator to a high degree of certainty.

“Because it is clear that judicial review alone will not cure the infirmities of the forensic-science community, there is a tremendous need for the forensic-science community to improve,” the report shows.

In recent years, there has been a greater reliance on forensic evidence. It’s becoming more of a factor and driving more investigations and trials, said Bruce Reeve, the laboratory administrator for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigations’ crime lab.

“We rely heavily on it if it’s available,” Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said, but the evidence is only used for major cases.

DCI Assistant Director Kevin Winker said that while authorities aren’t dependent on forensic evidence, it’s “another tool in the tool box, and we’ll take advantage of everything we can to solve a case.”

The state crime lab handles an average of 14,000 cases a year, he said. In 2008, authorities in Johnson County sent evidence from 670 cases to the crime lab.

The percentage of total DCI cases submitted to the lab was not immediately available, but Winker said it was a “very high rate,” particularly for crimes against persons.

Kelsay said the report likely won’t influence how police conduct investigations or what evidence officers collect.

“I’m not looking for one type of evidence, I’m looking for everything I can gather,” he said, and even a less reliable piece of forensic evidence can be used in conjunction with others.

“I’m not going to hang my hat on it; it won’t be the linchpin of my charge, but I will use it to corroborate the strength of my investigation,” Kelsay said.

Iowa City attorney John Greenleaf said attorneys have known forensic testing isn’t infallible and has a margin of error since its inception.

“That’s not news to me,” he said.

It’s the role of the defense attorney to bring that doubt out in trial, he said.

The Feb. 18 report also raises concerns about a lack of mandatory certification and accreditation for crime labs around the country.

Being certified at the state crime lab is not required, though some of the 56 employees do have certifications though the International Association for Identification.

Crime labs aren’t required to be accredited, but Iowa’s crime lab received its accreditation from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board in 2000.

A severe lack of resources is blamed for many of the problems in the report.

A statement from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors said they hope the report encourages a greater focus on forensic science leading to more resources.

“We are excited about the report pushing forensic science forward,” Reeve said.


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