This is the latest in a series about failures in forensic medical examiner laboratories throughout the United States. Many people believe that these labs are always accurate and unbiased, but this belief is undermined by the number of scandals which have been reported at these facilities in recent years.
You can't buy some hypodermic needles and blood pressure cuffs and set up shop as a doctor. Nor can you buy a calculator and tax processing software and call yourself an accountant. But apparently, some police officials in St. Paul, Minnesota all but purchased some lab equipment and set aside some building space and then tried to pass it off as a crime lab.
In 2012, two public defenders raised concerns about the practices of the crime lab operated by the city' police department. They discovered a lab that was run by a police sergeant with no scientific background, and a facility that had no operating procedures whatsoever. That prompted an independent probe in August of 2013 by two independent consultants, who found so many widespread problems that they recommended the crime lab be closed until they were addressed.
Here are some of the findings of the investigators' report:
- Errors in results or procedures in the majority of cases examinedLack of knowledge of basic scientific procedures
- Misidentified controlled substancesImproperly-destroyed fingerprint samples due to a belief that they were unusable
- Improperly-prepared drug samples which were susceptible to rapid contaminationDirty or malfunctioning equipment
- Improper analysis techniquesSloppy, unclear, or illegible documentation
- Unclear labeling practices
- The use of Wikipedia as a technical reference in one case
- Antiquated and unsecure computer storage of digital evidence
- Unfettered access to criminal evidence
- Lack of training in fingerprint identification for the lab's supervisor
To its credit, the City addressed the problem and made the necessary changes. But it's difficult to imagine how many criminal cases were adversely affected by the shoddy practices of the St. Paul Police crime lab. It's also important to point out that it's likely that the lab workers weren't intentionally trying to alter evidence or fix the outcomes of cases. But is gross incompetence really a better excuse than willful negligence?