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Crime Labs Falling Short

by Ed Lyon

Whenever most people hear about DNA testing in criminal cases, they invariably envision well-equipped, sterile labs like the ones depicted in television dramas such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or Bones. However, a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (“NIST”) that was finished in 2014 but kept secret until just recently dispels that notion for the myth it really is.

The NIST study revealed a plethora of testing methodologies varying from laboratory to laboratory in conjunction with many differing standards as to what constitutes a match between specimens collected at crime scenes by a technician that may or may not have cross-contaminated a sample or just outright adulterated it to start with.

This exact scenario caused the law enforcement communities in Europe to waste time and resources searching for a serial killer for years until it was discovered the suspect DNA belonged to a crime scene technician, similar to secondary DNA transfer problems. [See CLN, September 2018 cover story]

Yet another problem is the media-induced public’s perception of DNA’s infallibility, reinforced by shows like CSI and Bones, coupled with the average person’s lack of advanced scientific knowledge. This allows testifying crime lab technicians unable to blind jurors with brilliance to mislead them with jargon and an air of certainty. Innocent defendants’ lives, as well as their families, are all too often destroyed by such faulty forensics.

Biology professor Greg Hampikian pointed out the many failures with DNA testing showcased in the NIST study. In a controlled test, 105 U.S. and three Canadian crime labs were given the exact same mixture of DNA from three suspects alleged to have robbed a bank. A whopping 69 percent of the labs identified a totally innocent person as one of the robbers.

In the four years since the NIST study’s culmination, conditions regarding DNA testing have yet to be standardized as to methodology or an overall match standard. Crime labs are still as unlikely to achieve an accurate, reliable result in their work today as they were four years ago —when the very scientists who were negatively implicated in the study managed to conceal it. 


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