Privatization

Report: New York State Crime Lab Tainted by Incompetence, Corruption, Indifference

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This week, New York State's inspector general issued a blistering critique of the state's crime lab. The report came after a private accrediting organization found significant problems with one particular lab worker who had so little training that he couldn't operate the microscope he was supposed to be using for hair and fiber analysis. Armed with a cheat sheet from a former supervisor, Gary Veeder managed to fake lab reports in criminal cases for 15 years. He killed himself last year.

A wayward crime lab worker who fakes his way into the job is one thing. A fraud who manages to stay on the job for 15 years is a symptom of mass institutional failure. And that's the most disturbing part of the story. The institutional failure continued even after the embarrasing episode was exposed. From the New York Times:

…when the State Police became aware of the analyst's misconduct, an internal review by superiors in the Albany lab deliberately omitted information implicating other analysts and suggesting systemic problems with the way evidence was handled, the report said. Instead, the review focused blame mostly on…Veeder…

Mr. Veeder's allegations involving other lab workers were never part of the final report to the State Police's internal affairs division. State Police investigators and the lab's management "minimized and precipitously discarded the seriousness and extent of problems" at the lab, the inspector general's report said.

It said that one State Police investigator, Keith Coonrod, mischaracterized Mr. Veeder's responses implicating other lab scientists and skewed Mr. Veeder's statements to give the impression that it was his incompetence — not widespread misconduct — that led to the problems.

The IG's report, on the other hand, took direct aim at Veeder's superiors, noting, "There exists no doubt that laboratory management possessed sufficient information that Veeder's individual misconduct implicated potentially broader systemic issues, but failed to take appropriate action." The lab's director, George Zeosky, is still on the job. Assistant Director Richard Nuzzo—whom the report also accuses of intimidating another lab technician—was promoted to a position in the New York State Police Department's internal affairs office. Which means the guy in part responsible for turning a blind eye to incompetence and misconduct in the state's crime lab is now investigating other misconduct and incompetence within the department.

New York criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield predicts the report will have no effect at all on the way New York judges treat crime lab reports.

Once the prosecution gets its results from the crime lab, everything after that is all a big joke.  The defense testing is viewed as a desperate grasping at straws, making life difficult for the cops and prosecution, and just another waste of time for the court.  Sure, judges will acknowledge that state crime labs have their issues, but the "real" problem is always in some other case, before some other judge.  Every judge believes that the lab results before him or her are routine.  There's no problem here, counselor. Move along.

What makes scientific results different, however, is their conclusive affect on a judge and jury.  If the lab report says so, then so it is.  As much as judges and lawyers aren't scientists, neither are most jurors.  We all bow to the god of science, even when we know that it's not omnipotent. 

So the state, at least the Inspector General, acknowledges that the State Police Lab, sucks.  Do you think there will be a single judge across the State of New York who refuses to admit a lab report into evidence as a result?  I don't.  Not one.  Even if it was written in crayon.

The scandal in New York is yet another argument for several of the forensic reforms Roger Koppl suggested in a 2007 report for the Reason Foundation (publisher of Reason magazine and Reason.com). One is to send forensic evidence to private labs for testing and verification of the state crime lab's results. Even if it's only on every fourth or fifth or tenth case, as long as state lab technicians don't know when they're being checked, you eliminate the bias toward pleasing bosses and prosecutors. You also strengthen the incentive for accuracy.

And that's the other incentive problem, here. The state crime lab is run by the state police. That isn't a recipe for objective science. If you're going to have a state forensics laboratory, it ought to be wholly independent of police agencies and prosecutors.

This episode is also further evidence of the importance of the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, which established that the Constitution's Confrontation Clause gives defendants the right to cross examine the authors of crime lab reports. That decision had prosecutors across the country raging, complaining about the costs and burdens they now face in making forensic experts available for court. The ruling may already be in jeopardy; the Court will hear arguments next year in a Virginia case that could limit its reach.

Somewhat related: The woman who took Melendez-Diaz all the way to the Supreme Court, where she unsuccessfully argued against a right to cross-examine forensic specialists, was Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. Coakley is the Democratic nominee and heavy favorite in next month's special election to replace Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate.