Challenges greet panel overseeing state lab
- Challenges greet panel overseeing state lab
© 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.
Its 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 victims body.
A subsequent review by an audit team selected by Appeals Court Judge Robert
Humphreys, at the governors request, looked at the labs 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. Thats 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 hasnt 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 didnt address the issue should be easily
Second, the panel should address the way scientific evidence gets presented
in court. The audit team wasnt directly asked to extend its review to the
courtroom and didnt. But the case of Robin Lovitt, scheduled for execution
Wednesday, illustrates why thats 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 Lovitts sweat stained the
scissors and that the blood on the jacket was the victims. Did the analyst
play a role in creating the misconceptions? Given the life-and-death stakes,
thats a legitimate inquiry.
In many ways, Virginias 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
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;