Two years ago, Boynton Beach forensic expert Tiffany Roy was hired to double-check DNA evidence swabbed from a knife handle. What she found was troubling: The Broward Sheriff’s Office crime lab had mistakenly claimed it was conclusive.
As New Times previously reported, Roy complained to the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, which investigated and agreed with her findings.
Now, the crime lab faces revocation of its accreditation, and the Broward State Attorney’s Office will likely have to reopen thousands of closed cases.
Spokesman Ron Ishoy says the IT unit has been busy identifying criminal cases that may have been affected — approximately 2,000 in total, going back as far as 1999. The defendants in those cases will receive notices in coming weeks.
“We needed to identify the attorneys who handled the cases as well as the last known addresses of each defendant,” he explains. “This has been a complicated process.”
Not all cases that involve DNA evidence are included — just those based on complex samples, where the DNA came from multiple individuals. Generally, this is an issue when the DNA is found on something that’s been touched or worn. Cases involving bodily fluids tend to be more clear cut.
The state attorney’s decision is good — though also overwhelming — news for defense attorneys, who now have hundreds of cases to revisit.
“I’m thrilled,” says lawyer Monique Brochu, who already got questionable DNA evidence thrown out in a pending case. “They’re doing the right thing, finally. There are so many people who were misled by DNA that was wrong. To me, this is as big as when DNA started exonerating people years ago.”
Still, this doesn’t mean the problems with the BSO’s DNA testing procedures are over. To Roy’s frustration, the crime lab seems to be more interested in fighting to maintain its accreditation than trying fix the problems she identified. “They have fought me every step of the way,” she says. “I had to go to their accrediting agency, and now they’re fighting the accrediting agency. Scientists are telling them they’re doing things wrong, and they’re unwilling to change it, which is just wrong. It’s malpractice. Their response isn’t, ‘How can we make this right?’ but, ‘We feel like we haven’t done anything wrong, and we’re not going to do anything to change it.’”
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BSO did not respond to a request for comment, but Roy notes the crime lab has purchased a new software program called STRmix to analyze mixed DNA profiles, which she says is a good first step. “I still have my questions about some of their procedures for interpreting the profiles," she adds. "They need to go back and see if they have been calculated incorrectly, and then there needs to be a recalculation.”
She also points out that the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently published a report that is highly critical of the reliability of mixed DNA profiles. It calls on federal prosecutors and judges to be more selective about what they admit into evidence. It also advises caution with new software programs like the one the BSO just purchased, pointing out that further scrutiny is needed to determine whether or not they are scientifically valid.
Meanwhile, it looks likely that we’re about to find out a whole lot of people have been wrongfully convicted.
“I think this has affected many cases in a major way,” Roy says. “It’s really easy to mischaracterize DNA evidence. If it’s not properly explained to a jury, it can easily be misinterpreted because people think of DNA as the gold standard.”