Private DNA Lab Under Fire for Faulty Analysis
by Christopher Zoukis
National Medical Services, Inc. (“NMS”), a Pennsylvania-based forensics and medical lab, was cited in a recent report by the Texas Forensic Science Commission (“TFSC”) for improperly overamplifying DNA during work for a defense attorney. The “overblown” DNA led NMS scientists to conclude that the sample contained more than one person’s DNA, which other experts concluded was not accurate.
Cardell Torney was arrested and charged with sexual assault in 2012. Torney was identified by law enforcement through DNA analysis. Public defenders hired NMS and scientists Phillip Danielson and Christian Westring to conduct an independent analysis of the DNA. When the lab came back with results that suggested the possibility of other perpetrators, the trial court convened a hearing.
Bruce Budowle, former FBI scientist and current head of the Institute of Applied Genetics at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, testified for the government. His findings were vastly different than the NMS results. Budowle said NMS had improperly amplified the DNA and then misinterpreted the results. An expert on the Promega technology used by NMS also testified, saying the company misused the system.
The court agreed, finding the NMS results “incomprehensible,” “uninformative,” and “misleading.” After determining that NMS “ignored its own validation data,” the court rejected the DNA results produced by the lab.
According to Forensic Magazine, the TFSC launched an investigation into NMS because the lab is used by litigants in Texas courts. The results of the investigation were released on April 20, 2018, and TFSC agreed with the Torney court’s conclusion.
“[An] excessive amount of template DNA [was] amplified,” said the report. “The analyst followed NMS [standard operating procedure], which did not require remedial steps. However, the final data as interpreted by the analyst was clearly unreliable as were the conclusions drawn from the data. The unreliable data was interpreted by the analyst and was reported to the client.”
For its part, NMS launched a lab-wide review of 1,500 cases in the wake of the report. Forensic Magazine reports that the review is two-thirds complete, and no further issues have been found. Barry Logan, vice president for forensic science initiatives at NMS, said the Torney situation revealed systemic “issues” at the lab, but that the company has committed to a “major course correction.”
“We felt at the time that the data we had, the validation that we had, supported the opinions that were given in that case,” said Logan. “After reflection, and following input from the [TFSC], we accept that it probably didn’t.”
Part of the “course correction” appears to be the separation between NMS and the two scientists involved in Torney, Danielson and Westring. However, both forensic experts are still part of the industry standards-setting board, the Organization for Scientific Area Committees (“OSAC”). Rich Press, a spokesman for OSAC, said the Committee is aware of the TFSC report but has not yet taken action.
“OSAC leadership is aware of the report’s findings,” said Press. “OSAC leadership will determine whether any action is necessary.”