In March 2015, prosecutors temporarily stopped sending evidence to what was then a state-of-the-art city forensics lab in Washington, DC, over concerns technicians had bungled cases and misstated the likelihood DNA had been left at a crime scene. Earlier this month, the crime lab for the entire city of Austin, Texas, was shut down amid concern its technicians weren't following proper procedure. Both events amounted to earthquakes in the criminal-justice world: Crime labs are responsible for handling nearly every piece of physical evidence. They need to be accurate.
Now, according to an independent forensics analyst, the very same DNA issues have struck the scandal-plagued Broward Sheriff's Office Crime Lab. The place is just now recovering from allegations a former drug analyst potentially tainted thousands of separate cases.
The whistleblower, Tiffany Roy, a former forensics analyst for the state of Massachusetts, works as a private forensics expert in Boynton Beach. In 2014, she was hired to double-check DNA evidence that was swabbed from a knife handle. Much to Roy's surprise, she found the DNA evidence inconclusive. On October 2, 2015, Roy complained to the American Society of Crime Lab Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board, the national organization responsible for accrediting crime labs.
Her complaint, first published by Bill Gelin's J.A.A.B. Blog, triggered an ongoing ASCLD-LAB investigation, which could ultimately lead to sanctions against the crime lab or the reopening of thousands of criminal cases.
Though such labs are critical, they are routinely underfunded. Labs across the country have been shut down due to everything from faulty equipment to employees straight-up stealing drugs on the job. So this past December, the Department of Justice asked prosecutors to rely only on accredited labs, but it's unclear if the shift will really fix anything.
Case in point: BSO's accredited crime lab. Starting in 2012, former drug analyst Kelli McDonald became the subject of multiple Internal Affairs investigations after cocaine evidence in multiple cases she'd handled was found to be inconsistent. After being transferred out of the department, she chose to resign in November. McDonald had worked on thousands of cases. Critics, like the Broward Public Defender's Office, contend that any drug evidence McDonald touched can't be trusted in court.
In Roy's October complaint, she wrote that after reviewing the evidence in her case, "serious concerns were raised for me regarding the methods being employed by Broward County in the interpretation of complex DNA mixtures."
Her issues, she said, stem from the lab's usage of the "stochastic threshold," a measurement that tells analysts whether the DNA is "complete" enough to be used in a trial.
Speaking to New Times, Roy says she felt BSO was using inconclusive DNA to charge people with crimes. She explained the industry's "best practices" for DNA analysis had been made more stringent in 2011. BSO, it seemed to her, hadn't updated.
"DNA is like a genetic description... like hair color, eye color, weight, birth mark, or a tattoo," she explains. "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." In her complaint, she accused BSO of using that generic description to charge specific people with crimes. "Broward is taking the 'six-foot-tall black male' information and making it seem like it’s got more importance than it really does," she said.
(Likewise, the use of DNA evidence, in general, has recently been called into question.)
In a multipoint response letter sent to the ASCLD-LAB on December 28, Crime Lab Director Claudine Carter Pereira denied the charges. BSO had conducted a "thorough investigation" of the complaint, Carter wrote, adding: "Based on our investigation into the issues brought forth in this allegation, it is our opinion that they are unfounded."
The results of the investigation have yet to become public: Roy says the ASCLD-LAB issued a ruling "unfavorable" to BSO on April 12, but that BSO appealed the decision on June 21.
This has not stopped the crime lab's critics from speaking out. Broward Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes says Roy's allegations are "so problematic" for criminal justice in Broward County. (One local defense attorney has also already used Roy's complaint as evidence in a criminal case.) "DNA is perceived to be the gold standard when it comes to forensic evidence," Weekes says. "The public has such a faith in findings or results of DNA, it can be very hard to challenge it."
He adds: "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 then bites into longtime Broward State Attorney Michael Satz for relying heavily on BSO crime evidence despite years of scandal. "The State Attorney has to question evidence they use to prosecute folks," Weekes says. (State Attorney spokesperson Ron Ishoy did not respond to a message from New Times as of press time. We'll update the post if we hear back.)
In jurisdictions like Washington, DC, or Austin, Weekes says, it's been up to the state or district attorney's offices to "put their foot down" and stop relying on suspicious evidence. Satz, he says, appears unwilling to criticize anyone working in law enforcement.
"That has been our main complaint with the State Attorney for many years," Weekes says. "Whether it's police officers or the crime lab, they put on their blinders and turn a blind eye to questionable evidence. They're hellbent on getting a conviction, and if that means questionable evidence is used, they move for it."
"That," he adds, "is not justice. It's a bastardization of the criminal justice system."
Keep New Times Broward-Palm Beach Free... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering South Florida with no paywalls.