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Challenges greet panel overseeing state lab

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  • Brent Turvey
    Challenges greet panel overseeing state lab The Virginian-Pilot © November 28, 2005 http://home.hamptonroads.com/stories/story.cfm?story=95986&ran=24025 The
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2005
      Challenges greet panel overseeing state lab
      The Virginian-Pilot
      © November 28, 2005

      The state forensic lab approaches a milestone Tuesday as members of a newly
      created scientific advisory panel gather for the first time.

      It’s imperative that the panel function as more than a rubber stamp. Only
      then will it bolster confidence in a lab recently dogged by controversy,
      despite its reputation as a national leader in the field.

      The General Assembly created the scientific group in the wake of evidence
      that the lab mishandled DNA in the case of exonerated death-row inmate Earl
      Washington Jr. Despite insistence by lab director Paul Ferrara that no error
      occurred, a seven-month audit by a national accrediting agency affirmed that
      the lab incorrectly eliminated a convicted rapist as the source of genetic
      material left on the victim’s body.

      A subsequent review by an audit team selected by Appeals Court Judge Robert
      Humphreys, at the governor’s request, looked at the lab’s work in dozens of
      other cases. That less-intensive, three-month review recommended a number of
      procedural improvements but detected only a single substantial error.

      One of the first items of business for the new panel will be reviewing the
      second audit. Here are two omissions that ought to be addressed:

      First, the auditors failed to detect what some experts say was a glaring
      error in the case of Leon Jermain Winston, sentenced to death for a
      Lynchburg double murder.

      In 2002 an analyst at the lab tested genetic material on a gun and a glove
      against the DNA of Winston and several other people. Consistent with lab
      policy at the time, she included a random sample from a convicted offender,
      whose genetic profile she did not know. If the test results for the random
      sample correctly matched the profile for the convicted offender, then that
      would bolster confidence in the accuracy of the overall findings.

      But when the analyst encountered problems with the random-sample results,
      she deviated from accepted scientific practice in two ways. At a couple of
      points, rather than re-test to resolve discrepancies in the random-sample
      results, she simply marked the results on Winston and the others

      Even worse, according to her lab notes, when she obtained results that didn’
      t match the profile of the convicted offender, she plugged in findings
      obtained from a different test run. That’s a serious scientific no-no.

      “Every science teacher will tell you, if your control fails, you repeat the
      test,” said Betty Layne DesPortes, a Richmond attorney who chairs the
      jurisprudence section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, a
      national organization of forensic science professionals. The audit should
      have picked up the problem, she said.

      Humphreys requested a response from the audit team weeks ago but hasn’t yet
      gotten one. Since the chair of the team, DNA identity expert Arthur
      Eisenberg of North Texas University, sits on the scientific advisory panel,
      an explanation of why the team didn’t address the issue should be easily
      available Tuesday.

      Second, the panel should address the way scientific evidence gets presented
      in court. The audit team wasn’t directly asked to extend its review to the
      courtroom and didn’t. But the case of Robin Lovitt, scheduled for execution
      Wednesday, illustrates why that’s a problem.

      A lab analyst tested scissors presumed to be the murder weapon and a jacket
      worn by Lovitt. The tests revealed an extremely remote possibility that a
      stain on the scissors came from Lovitt; there was much stronger, though
      inconclusive, scientific evidence that blood on the jacket came from Lovitt
      himself, not the victim.

      Yet the prosecutor got away with intimating that Lovitt’s sweat stained the
      scissors and that the blood on the jacket was the victim’s. Did the analyst
      play a role in creating the misconceptions? Given the life-and-death stakes,
      that’s a legitimate inquiry.

      In many ways, Virginia’s state forensic lab deserves its reputation for
      quality, but high standards demand constant vigilance. Every organization
      benefits from oversight. The scientific advisory panel has a solemn duty to
      make sure that the lab gets it.

      Brent E. Turvey, MS - Forensic Science
      Forensic Solutions, LLC

      Author of:
      Turvey, B. (2002) Criminal Profiling, 2nd Ed., Elsevier Science

      Savino J. & Turvey B. (2004) Rape Investigation Handbook, Elsevier Science

      "... the intermixing of science and politics is a bad combination with a bad
      history. We must remember the history, and be certain that what we present
      to the world as knowledge is disinterested and honest."
      - Crichton, M. (2004) State of Fear, New York: Harper-Collins Publisher;
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