January 7, 2014

Another Day, Another Corrupt Crime Lab

If you live in West Virginia and care about criminal justice issues, the name Fred Zain should make you cringe.  Zain was a serologist in the West Virginia State Police crime lab between 1977 and 1989 (after which he took his talents to Texas).  Zain made a habit of falsifying evidence leading to wrongful convictions.  You can read the details of his conduct in this 1993 West Virginia Supreme Court decision, which concluded:
The matters brought before this Court by Judge Holliday are shocking and represent egregious violations of the right of a defendant to a fair trial. They stain our judicial system and mock the ideal of justice under law. We direct Prosecutor Forbes to pursue any violation of criminal law committed by Trooper Zain and urge that he consult with the United States District Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia. We direct our Clerk to send all relevant papers to both of them. This conduct should not go unpunished.
Zain died before he was held criminally responsible for any of his misdeeds.

Almost more important than his individual culpability, though, was this observation:
This corruption of our legal system would not have occurred had there been adequate controls and procedures in the Serology Division. Judge Holliday's report is replete with the deficiencies and derelictions that existed and as were uncovered by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors whose team reviewed the forensic data.
That was two decades ago.  Which is just to say that, in West Virginia at least, we should not be surprised by malfeasance in crime labs.  Yet it continues to happen.

The latest notorious crime lab scandal comes from Massachusetts, where chemist Annie Dookhan was convicted of doing false testing in numerous drug cases, leaving a complete mess in her wake:
When the scandal broke in August 2012, those incarcerated based on evidence Dookhan had tested did have a day in court. Many were identified immediately, and had their sentences stayed. More than 3,200 'drug lab' court hearings have been held.
In spite of that, things are moving slowly, if at all, when it comes to remedying the situation.  Explains the state ACLU's legal director (and former fellow Fourth Circuit public defender) Matt Segal:
'The state has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this scandal, and what have we gotten for that expenditure? The answer is almost nothing,' Segal says. 'Certainly hasn't been justice; it hasn't been a better approach on the drug war.'
Among the things Dookhan lied about were her credentials, for which, at any rate, there are no national standards.  Standards may not matter much, anyway, as most of the labs involved in some kind of scandal are accredited by a national organization. For what it's worth, West Virginia officials were told in 1985 that Zain had failed courses in sreology and blood testing, but nothing came of it.

A major problem is that crime labs are - like police and prosecutors - part of the State that prosecutes defendants (although, it appears, that Dookhan's lab wasn't part of the state police, at least).  They're on the same side of the ledger, not a truly neutral arbiter of scientific fact.  By contrast, public defenders (federal ones, anyway) are employees of the court system itself, a branch apart from the prosecution.  Any pressure that a scientist feels to return the "right" answers as opposed to the accurate one has dire consequences in court.

And lest anyone think "well, they're just criminals, they must have been guilty of something," keep in mind that you, dear taxpayer, pay the final bill:
Besides the expense of investigating and prosecuting Zain, and retrying cases related to him, West Virginia has paid at least $6.5 million to settle lawsuits by wrongfully convicted defendants.
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His work in Texas also was under fire and led to the payment of at least $850,000 to two men.
Crime lab reform needs to happen because it's wrong to lock people in a cage based on bullshit and made up results.  But if, as is so often the case, the only motivation for change is to save money down the road, I'm all right with that.

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