We like to think that only guilty people end up in prison. And we like to think that DNA and scientific evidence are so fool-proof and convincing that they prevent innocent people from getting convicted of crimes. The reality, however, is that scientific evidence in criminal cases relies on crime lab analysis and, more specifically, on the scientists—state actors who work closely with police and prosecutors—who conduct the analysis. It turns out that there have been numerous crime lab scandals around the country that have belatedly revealed that the analysts whose job it was to test the evidence for the criminal cases were purposely and routinely lying about results in order to support false convictions.
Scientific evidence is used as proof in most criminal cases. There is DNA evidence, fingerprint analysis, verification of illegal drugs, ballistics testing on bullets or guns, etc. So when a crime lab scandal demonstrates that scientific testing results have been falsified, the reverberations are profound: criminal defendants were denied a fair trial and innocent people were wrongfully convicted. We’ve already covered Junk Science Causing Wrongful Convictions, looking at discredited pseudo sciences responsible for putting countless innocent people behind bars. But this is something different. In crime lab scandals, legitimate science is at issue, but the chemist simply fakes results on behalf of the state in order to support convictions.
For instance, Oklahoma chemist Joyce Gilchrist tested DNA evidence and other forensic evidence for the Oklahoma City Police Department for over twenty years before she was fired. Oklahoma County ranked third in the country since 1976 for having the most executions, so Gilchrist’s work had a wide impact. But she routinely lied about her results, with frighteningly serious consequences. One man, Curtis Edward McCarty, was exonerated after almost 20 years on death row, after the courts found that Gilchrist altered or intentionally lost evidence. In another case, David Bryson spent 17 years in prison for a rape/kidnapping he did not commit, based on Gilchrist’s knowingly false testimony that the DNA implicated him, when it instead excluded him. Then, there’s Fred Zain, former Chief of Serology at a crime lab in West Virginia. Zain regularly lied about his qualifications and committed perjury in support of falsified crime lab reports. Once Zain’s duplicity came to light, the West Virginia Supreme Court ordered an investigation that concluded that at least 134 convictions were seriously in doubt because they relied on Zain’s untrustworthy testimony or reports. In Massachusetts, analyst Annie Dookhan pled guilty to falsifying thousands of drug test results. During her nine-year career, she tested about 60,000 drug samples, in roughly 34,000 criminal cases. Another Massachusetts crime lab tech, Sonja Farak, was a serious drug addict who used drug evidence to support her own habit and get high on the job. She tainted at least 10,000 prosecutions (and possibly far more).
A Chicago Tribune examination of 200 DNA and death row exoneration cases found that more than a quarter involved faulty crime lab work or analyst testimony. We have learned of crime lab problems in at least 20 states, as well as the FBI, ranging from systemic negligence to intentional deception. Many of these scandals are old news, in that they were unearthed years ago. But here’s the real travesty: the vast majority of the victims of these scandals are still in prison. Even if they figure out that they were crime lab scandal victims and even if they could afford a lawyer – two huge ifs – there are still so many legal hoops and hurdles for convicted people to navigate in order to get a court to take another look at their convictions that most of these victims will never see relief. How’s that for a broken system?