2003, the year in review:
Biological reactions from coast to coast
¶ At least 1,300 cases tried by Harris County, Texas, prosecutors will be reviewed in the aftermath of a scathing audit that found technicians at the Houston Police Department’s DNA lab to be poorly trained and their work shoddy. The audit also says that samples were contaminated by a leak in the roof. A report issued by one of two grand juries investigating the troubled facility concludes that no wrongdoing occurred, but officials had committed ethical and moral violations by failing to take action when they learned of problems. Nine employees of the lab are disciplined with punishments ranging from suspensions to forced retirements or resignations.
¶ Virginia becomes the first state to adopt a policy requiring suspects charged with violent crimes to submit a DNA sample, or else forfeit their right to be released at their booking…. Anyone who pleads guilty to a felony must submit a DNA sample under a new policy enacted by the Jackson County, Mo., prosecutor.
¶ DNA samples from juvenile offenders and those who have been arrested, but not convicted, would be added to a national database, under a proposal from the Bush administration.
¶ Inmates who ask for DNA tests that subsequently reaffirm their guilt once completed would be billed under legislation sought by a St. Louis, Mo., city prosecutor. Those cleared by the tests would be able to sue for compensation for their time behind bars.
¶ Budget constraints hamper the Washington State Patrol’s efforts to staff its new crime lab… Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent upgrading DNA lab facilities in Washington, D.C., New York City and in Los Angeles…
¶ A state Senate Committee on Criminal Justice in Texas passes a bill that requires all DNA crime labs to meet accreditation standards.
¶ A McDowell County, W.Va., circuit court judge sets aside an attempted aggravated robbery conviction after finding that testimony given by discredited former State Police chemist Fred Zain “was not harmless error.” The defendant served more than seven years in prison before being released in 1990.
¶ Problems are found in forensic laboratories in Orlando, Fla., where an analyst with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement admits falsifying tests designed to check his work… In Phoenix, technicians use the wrong statistical computation to inflate the likelihood of a suspect’s genetic material being a match in nine criminal cases… A Fort Worth senior forensic scientist is fired and lab operations are suspended after an outside review.
¶ The director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation apologizes for the mislabeling of a blood sample 12 years ago that led to the release of a man subsequently charged with a murder and a string of rapes…. Authorities in Montana and Washington plan a review of the work of a forensic scientist who served as director of the Montana crime lab for 20 years and as a forensic scientist for the Washington State Patrol for 13 years, after DNA evidence cleared a Billings, Mont., man who spent 15 years in prison for the rape of an 8-year-old girl.
¶ Investigators in Baton Rouge, La., anger civil libertarians and are slapped with at least one lawsuit after conducting a DNA dragnet that fails to help them catch a serial killer responsible for the murders of four women. What ultimately helps is the use of a genetic profile that uses a new process to identify an individual’s ethnicity. [See related item, Page 7.]
¶ Defense attorneys in Florida scramble to meet an Oct. 1 deadline set by the state legislature for submitting requests for the retesting of prisoners’ DNA. Prosecutors are resisting the notion that DNA can prove whether a defendant committed a crime, claiming it is only one piece of evidence among many in a case. But attorneys claim that a double standard exists where DNA evidence is deemed infallible when used to prove guilt, but not to prove innocence.
¶ Baltimore County police begin the review of 480 cases that Concepcion Bacasnot, a chemist at the department’s lab, worked on during the 1980s, after the release of a transcript in which she describes to a public defender her incompetence in performing blood tests that led to a defendant’s life sentence for murder.
¶ Confidence in the accuracy of the FBI’s DNA lab should not be undermined by shortcuts taken by a technician who was fired for not performing control tests on samples, says Director Robert S. Mueller III. More than 100 cases are being retested; none of the work performed by the technician was used in a prosecution.
¶ Using a cunning ruse to obtain a DNA sample, Seattle police arrest a New Jersey man who they believe raped and strangled a 13-year-old girl in 1982. Police mailed the suspect, John A. Athan a letter on city stationery along with documents they asked him to complete and mail back. Athan filled out the forms and licked the envelope closed. A DNA profile from Athan’s saliva matched one from a semen sample left on the body of Kristen Sumstad. Athan, now 35, has been charged with murder.