BSO Crime Lab Halts Some DNA Analysis After New Times Story

BSO Crime Lab Halts Some DNA Analysis After New Times StoryEXPAND
dave.see via Flickr Creative Commons

After New Times published a story last week about a whistleblower's complaint against the Broward Sheriff's Office Crime Lab — the whistleblower claimed BSO was mishandling of DNA evidence — NBC 6 (WTVJ-TV) reported Friday that BSO had suspended certain aspects of its DNA analysis program.

New Times has also obtained documents from the crime lab's accrediting body, the American Society of Crime Lab Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD-LAB), that show exactly which rules the crime lab, which handles evidence for thousands of criminal drug and DNA cases every year, was found to have violated. The ASCLD-LAB handed down its sanctions in April, but BSO has since appealed that decision.

The allegations could affect thousands of criminal cases in Broward County.

The report came after a private whistleblower, Boynton Beach forensics analyst Tiffany Roy, filed a complaint with the crime lab's accrediting body, the ASCLD-LAB, in October 2015. Roy, who'd been hired to retest a DNA sample swabbed from a knife handle, felt BSO had been incorrectly applying the "stochastic threshold," which tells analysts whether a DNA sample is "complete" enough to be used in a trial.

Roy claims BSO had been trumping up DNA samples and making them seem more useful than they were. "DNA is like a genetic description... like hair color, eye color, weight, birth mark, or a tattoo," she told New Times last week. "You can get a lot of mixable profile data, sort of like saying a perpetrator is a six-foot-tall black male in his twenties. Broward is taking the 'six-foot-tall black male' information and making it seem like it’s got more importance than it really does." Massive crime labs in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, have been criticized for making the same error. BSO immediately disputed Roy's claims.

(Roy's complaint was first reported by Bill Gelin at J.A.A.B. Blog.)

In an April 12 report, ASCLD-LAB confirmed many of Roy's suspicions and wrote that multiple BSO analysis practices were incorrect. Among other claims, the sheriff's procedures had "the potential to not fully recognize the genotypes of all potential contributors and the potential to overstate the statistical significance of occurrence of the evidentiary profile," the report said.

In other words: The crime lab could have been using incorrect or incomplete DNA to charge defendants with crimes.

According to emails attached to the report, BSO has since appealed the ruling. An appeal hearing was held remotely on June 21. Per ASCLD-LAB bylaws, the board must issue a ruling within two weeks.

Reached by phone, Crime Lab Director Claudine Carter Pereira said she was not authorized to speak to New Times.

BSO provided the following statement to New Times:

Our understanding of the allegation from the defense attorney’s consultant is in regards to the statistical calculations for mixture interpretations. DNA evidence is rock solid, proven science and that is not what is being called into question, rather the interpretation of statistics.

Our Crime Labs guidelines and protocols have been reviewed and assessed by ASCLD/LAB time and time again and have been deemed scientifically sound and accurate. Attached you will find a recent continuation of accreditation letter from ASCLD along with some other documents you may find helpful.

The BSO Crime Lab exists to provide accurate forensic analysis and examination of evidence to assist the criminal justice process in Broward County. Our crime lab personnel neither work for the prosecution or the defense. The crime lab experts work to find the truth. 

Last week, longtime critic Gordon Weekes of the Broward Public Defender's Office said it will be up to Broward State Attorney Michael Satz to force the lab to shape up. Over at the lab's drug unit, former employee Kelli McDonald had been the focus of multiple Internal Affairs investigations after drugs had apparently gone missing in relation to multiple cocaine samples she'd tested. She resigned in November during an open investigation.

"I don’t know how many times [BSO's] work has to come into question, before they recognize they have a three-alarm fire in the crime lab," Weekes said.

A spokesman for the State Attorney's Office, Ron Ishoy, has not responded to New Times' request for comment.

Here's a copy of the report:

Correction: This piece previously misstated the exact nature of BSO's suspended program. BSO is still "testing" certain portions of DNA, but will cease "statistical reporting of complex mixtures" of DNA for the immediate future.

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