In a time of trouble for some California crime labs, a state panel that oversees the scientific investigators who can make or break a court case convened this month and voted itself out of existence.
The June 3 decision to disband the California Crime Lab Task Force came as scandal and controversy dog the forensic side of the state's criminal justice system from one hot spot to the next.
Matters such as missing drugs and crooked criminalists have threatened thousands of cases in San Francisco and San Joaquin County. Shaky testimony from a purported DNA expert in Sacramento County, meanwhile, put its crime lab under scrutiny.
"I think this means that things will just continue the way they've been," said David Lynch, a Sacramento assistant public defender who was on the task force and opposed the decision to shut it down.
California lawmakers created the 17-member task force in 2007 on a combined 118-0 vote in the Assembly and state Senate. Made up of crime lab directors, defense lawyers, prosecutors, police and sheriff's officials, and academic experts, the panel was charged with reviewing the state of forensics in California and reporting back to the Legislature on how to improve the investigative world of the white coats.
Task force Chairman Dane Gillette said the disbanding may be only temporary, and that the panel can review its termination decision as soon as next year. Besides, Gillette said, the group has accomplished its principal task by putting out a report last year that contained 41 recommendations to improve forensic justice. Among them: adjust crime lab pay, improve training and increase staffing.
Gillette, a deputy state attorney general, said the impetus to cancel the task force came from the panel's lab directors, who contend their own accreditation group provides sufficient oversight. The association of front-line criminalists who analyze DNA, drug samples, fingerprints and the like also pushed for the shutdown, according to Gillette.
With the federal government working to fix forensic cracks nationwide, Gillette said, the state panel's majority also opted to put itself on hold until Washington makes its move.
"It became clear that there was some controversy within the task force and the agencies that they represented that we were premature," Gillette said. "By that, the (lab directors and criminalists) both wrote policy papers saying that, as much as they respected and admired what we had done to date ... we ought to postpone any further discussion in the task force until we had the opportunity to see what Washington was proposing."
The decision to disband has come under attack from the defense lawyers who sit on the task force. They say the panel was shelved before it could act on its final recommendation to the Legislature under the 2007 mandate: report back on the creation of a statewide forensic oversight body.
"They suspended it because, in my personal opinion, they do not want an oversight body," said Lynch, the Sacramento assistant public defender. "The people who voted to suspend the proceedings are essentially crime lab directors, and they are of the opinion that 'we regulate ourselves just fine.' "
The San Francisco crime lab cases have generated the most heat.
In one instance, authorities are investigating a supervising criminalist on suspicion of stealing drugs. It turns out that same criminalist, Deborah Madden, has a criminal record that San Francisco prosecutors never disclosed to defense lawyers. That omission has forced the District Attorney's Office to dismiss hundreds of cases.
More recently, criminalists bogged down by a backlog of DNA samples in San Francisco never analyzed blood from an April homicide in which police have now named Anthony Alvarez as a suspect. Alvarez, 26, remained free until Sacramento County sheriff's deputies tried to arrest him for other crimes June 9. Alvarez took a child hostage and forced a 56-hour standoff before deputies killed him last Friday.
Sacramento's crime lab came under scrutiny as well last year.
In a sexual assault trial, criminalist Jeffrey Herbert testified that the DNA sample taken from defendant Charles Richard Smith matched only one in 95,000 people in the general population. Herbert gave the testimony even though he had been told by a supervisor the sample matched a figure more like one out of every 47 people, officials said.
The discrepancy was raised during trial. Prosecutors agreed to go with the lower probability scenario, but were able to obtain a conviction based on the testimony of the victim, Deputy District Attorney Thomas Asker said. Smith was sentenced to 25 years to life.
After trial, a state Department of Justice review concluded that Herbert's calculations showed "an insufficient understanding" of how to analyze mixed DNA samples. Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeff Rose said the crime lab has since reviewed and rewritten its protocols on DNA mixtures. He said the District Attorney's Office reviewed more than 100 cases, and no other convictions have been threatened.
Lynch, the Sacramento public defender who brought the issue to light, said the Smith case illustrates the shortcomings of accredited labs policing themselves. "They have made fixes, but the reason they made changes is because it was highlighted by somebody in the defense community," Lynch said.
Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.