How Reliable Are Arizona’s Crime Labs?

Following on the heels of our prior post about wrongful imprisonment comes news from the blog Grits for Breakfast that gives more reason for skepticism. Grits for Breakfast discusses the poor track record of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB), a crime lab accreditation agency used extensively throughout the U.S. A reader forwarded a 31-page memo by Marvin E. Schechter, a section chair at the New York State Bar Association. Schechter’s memo states that ASCLD/LAB “could…be described as a product service organization which sells for a fee, a ‘seal of approval,’ covering diverse laboratory systems which laboratories can utilize to bolster their credibility through in-court testimony by technicians plus ancillary services such as protection from outside inquiry, shielding of internal activities and where necessary, especially in the event of public condemnation, a spokesperson to buffer the laboratory from media inquiry.” It’s not a very flattering description of an agency that currently accredits 387 crime labs, 10 of which are in Arizona.

Arizona is mentioned in the memo as one of several states where lab failures at ASCLD/LAB-accredited facilities have been reported. Here’s the excerpt:

Newspapers have reported since 2005 at least 50 laboratory failures….Of these 50 incidents, 28 occurred in facilities that were under ASCLD/LAB accreditation….Incidents occurred have occurred [sic] in ASCLD/LAB accredited facilities in Arizona (4), California (6), Connecticut (1), Florida (1), Georgia (3), Kansas (1), Maryland (1), New York (6), North Carolina (1), Tennessee (1), Texas (1).

In these eleven states, the failures encompassed different forms. Thus, there were mistakes in the identification of fibers, destroyed blood samples, DNA contamination, failure to perform maintenance and calibration, mix-up of key physical evidence, faking calibration dates, false credentials, faking of drug test results, failing proficiency tests, safety deficiencies, substandard ventilation, ineffective operating procedures, evidence integrity issues, delay in reporting DNA evidence, expired chemicals, “dry-labbing,” supervisory failure, incorrect drug weights, theft of drugs, incorrect and/or misleading blood serology results, lack of proper certification and use of outdated tests and destruction of laboratory records.

Upstream from Arizona’s problematic prisoners are problematic crime labs. You can read more about the memo on the Grits for Breakfast blog.

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