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D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences Firearms Examination Unit Under Fire

The investigation commenced in January 2020 at the request of the D.C. Inspector General. In October 2019, the Justice Department directed the lab to turnover all documents and office communications on firearm evidence examination procedures together with all reviews or indications of errors.

The Justice Department investigation was prompted by inconsistencies in the lab’s analysis of cartridge casings from two murders in 2017, which erroneously connected defendant, Rondell McLeod, scheduled for trial in June of 2021 on murder charges, to the crime.

According to those court documents, “DFS management not only failed to properly address the conflicting results … but also engaged in actions to alter the results reached by the examiners assigned to conduct a reexamination of the evidence. DFS management then misrepresented the various activities undertaken and analytical conclusions reached to their clients and stakeholders. Such actions indicate a lack of adherence to core principles of integrity, ethics and professional responsibilities. Management has cast doubt on the reliability of the work product of the entire DFS laboratory,” it said.

The lab, which unlike most other evidence laboratories which are part of law enforcement organizations, is an independent lab whose management team is selected by D.C. Mayor Marian Bowser. It is responsible for analyzing evidence from crime scenes, including firearms, DNA, and fingerprints.

The investigation centered on the lab’s supervisors exerting pressure on examiners in 2017 to alter a finding of “no match” to “inconclusive” in relation to the shell casing in the McLeod case. The audit team looking into the matter indicated that it “does not have confidence in the analytical results” of the firearms unit, known as the FEU. Its final report concluded, “The audit team recommends that the FEU immediately cease performing casework and that clients and stakeholders not rely on results from the FEU” and recommended that the unit examiners all be intensively reviewed.

The D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences head, Jenifer Smith, responded as follows. “By statute, Department of Forensic Sciences must remain independent from the prosecution and defense,” she said. “Forensic testing complaints are required to be reviewed by the independent Science Advisory Board (SAB), and audits are required to be performed by a third-party national accrediting body (ANAB). The review conducted by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) does not meet this criteria and cannot be considered an audit of the department. The SAB has requested the materials reviewed by the USAO and OAG for this report and these materials have yet to be made available.”

Regardless of Ms. Smith’s analysis, the matter continues to be under review by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington, D.C.

The latest development in this ongoing saga is that the ANSI National Accreditation Board temporarily suspended the lab’s accreditation as of April 2, 2021. The suspension is effective for 30 days and applies to the entire lab, not just the firearms unit. During the suspension, the city will be required to contract with outside labs to process forensic evidence in new cases. 

 

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