The Chemistry World website tweeted yesterday a report of malpractice at a forensics laboratory in Oregon. Nika Larsen, a forensic scientist at the Bend Crime Laboratory, allegedly would take drugs and other items from samples she was testing and replaced them with OTC drugs. The District Attorney of the Deschutes County said they will have to review 1500 criminal cases in which Larsen analyzed evidence.
Another forensic scientist in Oregon, Jeff Dovci, who retired from the Central Point Lab in 2013, has come under scrutiny because of his testimony in a 2005 trial. Although the convictions in that case were overturned in 2012 for reasons unrelated to Dovci’s testimony, an examination of his court records has cast doubt on his testimony.
Back in 2013, Annie Dookham, A Massachusetts forensic scientist, was sentenced to 3 to 5 years in prison for falsifying thousands of drug tests, which could affect the convictions of over 1100 defendants. In their October 2012 report of the Dookham case, Chemistry World included a quote from Josh Lee, a criminal defense attorney in Chicago, who teaches forensic chromatography.
“Forensic science is very much a ‘wild, wild west’ where everyone does what they want.” There is no true oversight such as the pharmaceutical industry or the Environmental Protection Agency’s labs.
Seriously? Why not?
Forensic labs can become certified under the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors or even ISO17025, requirements for testing laboratory management systems, but neither of these are mandatory, like EPA’s programs. The EPA keeps a close watch on their laboratories since they, and we, are concerned about the environment and the health of the populace.
Shouldn’t we be as concerned with the forensic laboratories and the manner it collects, analyzes and stores samples? How many innocent people were convicted based on testimonies from Larsen and Dookham? How many were guilty and got away? How much money is it going to cost tax payers to review all the cases to determine if a re-trial is warranted? These are just two examples. There have been cases of forensic scientist fraud in Pensacola, Florida and Walker County, Texas.
Making processes such as training and maintaining documentation mandatory will not solve the problem, since there will always be unscrupulous laboratory workers, but it would add more layers of supervision. And tougher penalties. Labs won’t be able to operate with a ‘wild, wild west’ attitude. The EPA has had to send out the SWAT team but these incidents have been much fewer.
Environmental chemists are working their butts off to maintain their certifications. Make the forensic chemists do the same.