When the National Academy of Sciences reported several years ago on the sorry state of forensic sciences in the United States, Dr. Carll Ladd, DNA Supervisor of the Connecticut Department of Public Safety, was quick to point out what he thought were "methodological problems" in the NAS report. Now Ladd’s lab is under fire. Rather than enduring more question-begging and caviling, new leadership should be appointed.
Two audits of the lab in July by investigators working for the National Institute of Justice, a unit of the United States Justice Department, suggest that the Connecticut lab is not performing up to standards.
Although the lab had no backlog of cases in 2004, there are now nearly 4,000 cases in the pipeline, requiring tests of one sort or another. In the area of DNA testing, the unit that Ladd supervises, federal investigators have questioned whether lab meets federal standards in terms of supervision, reporting of DNA test results, evidence control, data security, quality assurance, validation techniques, and adherence to standard operating procedures.
Michael Lawlor, chief criminal justice policy advisor to the Gov. Dannel Malloy, notes that "a lot of it has to do with understaffing, but there may be other problems as well." Give Lawlor credit for an uncompromising commitment to truth, no matter how inconvenient.
The audit results of the National Institute of Justice audits should be released to the public immediately. Instead, requests for the documents under the Freedom of Information Act are being met with bureaucratic stonewalling.
State police officials told The Hartford Courant the audit reports "contain inaccuracies that require a response to the federal agency." In other words, the state police want spin doctors to work over the reports before the public gets to see them. This is repulsive evasion that law men would scorn were a subject of interrogation to offer it. Can’t you hear the officer telling the suspect, "Look, just tell us what happened. We will put in a good word for you with the prosecutor."
When lawmen play hide the ball with the truth, public confidence in the criminal justice system suffers. I was disappointed, therefore, to see Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane tap-dancing around the truth.
It would be "pure speculation" to say whether the audit findings might undermine criminal prosecutions, he claims. "These are preliminary reports," he said. "The lab is coming up for recertification. We don’t have reason to believe that this would have a substantive effect on cases that involved the processing of DNA."
C’mon, Kevin. Problems with supervision, with validation of tests, with handling of evidence, with quality assurance, with adherence to standard operating procedures, and you remain sanguine that all is well in this the best of all possible worlds? This is no time to play Candide. If it were a client of yours, a loved one, or even you, you would be hard pressed to accept as credible a prosecutorial claim that despite federal criticism of the state’s crime labs, all is well.
Shortly after the NAS report on forensic sciences was published in early 2009, I attended a seminar at which Dr. Ladd spoke. When questioned about the NAS report, Dr. Ladd was dismissive. The report had methodological flaws, he said. The comment struck me as petulant, even arrogant. That same haughtiness on now on display by state officials seeking to downplay federal criticism of the lab.
Connecticut was once at the forefront in forensic science, thanks largely to the pioneering work of Dr. Henry Lee. But Dr. Lee is now spread too thin. The lab is inbred by people he handpicked who now seek manage the lab by incantation and fiat rather than adherence to recognized federal standards. The result is the mess we have: A lab overwhelmed and unable to do what is asked of it.
The governor needs to reach out for new leadership in the lab, preferably from out of state. Dr. Lee’s celebrity status might play for television shows such as CSI, but, and this is crucial, it is important to note that when the NAS assembled its panel to review the state of forensic sciences in the United States, not one member of Dr. Lee’s lab, and not Dr. Lee himself, were asked to participate. Connecticut, once a forensic leader, is now a backwater. The stiff-necked refusal to release the National Institute of Justice audit of the state crime lab proves it.
If the state police won’t release these reports, then the governor’s office should do so. The sciences are supposed to be transparent, and governed by methods accessible to all. Hiding a report critical of how the forensic labs operate is worse than shameful. It is akin to a crime.
Courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.