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Audit of D.C. Forensics Lab Reveals History of Botched Forensic Analyses

However, as early as 2015, two audits revealed that DFS’ DNA procedures were inadequate. Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office (“USAO”) brought attention to numerous mistakes concerning DNA analysis conducted by DFS. DFS lost its national accreditation, and the DNA analysis mistakes called into question the validity of evidence in approximately 200 cases.

After the 2015 audits, then-director Max Houck resigned. While the chief scientist and senior manager for DNA testing were both fired, Jenifer Smith proceeded to take over as the agency’s new director. Eliminating past practices and policies allowed the lab to again meet the necessary industry standards by 2018. Due to Smith’s changes, DFS was able to clear two audits from accreditation agencies while also improving communication with law enforcement. But the beneficial effects of the restructuring didn’t last.

By October 2019, the U.S. Justice Department was asking DFS to hand over documents pertaining to firearm evidence analysis policies. Also requested were any analysis reviews or indications of analysis verification errors. January 2020 found the FBI investigating a DFS firearms analyst for falsely certifying evidence analysis records as having been secondarily reviewed and confirmed by a colleague as per agency policy. These two investigations have reignited distrust among DFS, USAO, and defense attorneys. While the investigations did not reveal any criminal wrongdoing, a February 2020 report did recommend that the D.C. inspector general review “mismanagement, poor judgment, and failures of communications” within DFS. The investigations also launched renewed agency auditing. The auditing set out to examine 60 cases being prosecuted in D.C. Superior Court. Discrepancies were noted in a dozen of those cases.

The audit also confirmed that independent forensic examiners reached a wholly contradictory conclusion as those of the DFS examiners in at least six of the cases. The conclusion found by the audit examiners included not only false matches by DFS analysts but the matching of cartridge casings and bullets that the DFS analysts had been unable to match.

The investigations that led to these latest audits began when ballistic evidence in two 2015 shootings in the D.C. area were found to have been incorrectly confirmed as matching. Two men, 29-year-old Antwan Baker and Amari Jenkins, 21, were both fatally shot, and police had gathered ballistic evidence from the crime scenes. That evidence was entered into the National Ballistic Integrated Information Network (“NBIIN”). NBIIN is an automated database that stores and compares images of forensic ballistic evidence. DFS was alerted by NBIIN that the ballistic evidence in the 2015 shootings may be linked. This is the evidence that was then falsely and inaccurately confirmed as matching and verified as such by the DFS analyst. Based in part on this questionable ballistic evidence, Rondell McLeod and Joseph Brown were charged in 2017 with both of the 2015 killings. Almost four years after the original evidence was supposedly matched by NBIIN, prosecutors were preparing for the trial of McLeod when the problem with the original analysis was discovered, WTOPnews reports.

Prosecutors requested that Travis Spinder, a ballistic expert from Montana, review the evidence to confirm that it did actually link the two 2015 shootings. Spinder concluded that the 10mm shell casings did not come from the same gun. Spinder’s conclusion was then confirmed by four other independent experts.

“In other words, his conclusion is that the same 10mm gun was not used in both murders,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Spence in an email to McLeod’s attorneys, concluding, “Needless to say, this is a different conclusion than the one reached by the initial DFS examiner.”

Government attorneys are now busy trying to protect the integrity of their prosecutions. The findings are impacting defense attorney preparations, too. McLeod’s attorney moved to completely dismiss the murder indictment because the killings were only “linked together by ballistics testimony that has subsequently been debunked and proven to be false.”

An attorney also called it a “complete and intentional fraud” intended to mislead the grand jury. DFS has continued to deny any errors on its part. DFS also refuses to actively cooperate with the audit’s examiners and has not willingly turned over needed documents.

The USAO is now proceeding with a lawsuit against DFS to receive access to these documents. The documents would allow for completion of the audits. The USAO stated it does not want to appear complicit in any DFS denials of evidentiary problems. Public Defender Service (“PDS”) director Avis Buchanan believes prosecutors are too cozy with the audit team, arguing that PDS and other “non-prosecution” stakeholders should have more input into any of the audit team compositions. As of now, the full findings of this latest audit have not been provided to the public. There appears to be enough information now available to create grave concerns with evidentiary examinations and confirmations that were made by DFS analysts. 

 

Sources: WTOP.com, forensicmag.com

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