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Forensics on Trial

Rare look inside state crime labs reveals recurring DNA test problems

See the PBS NOVA feature: Forensics on trial

For the detective working the case, it looked like a sure thing. The 58-year-old suspect had confessed to raping his young niece. He had a prior sex-crime conviction.

DNA evidence extracted from the 10-year-old girl's underwear would be the clincher.

Charged with child rape, the road-crew worker from the South King County town of Pacific faced up to 26 years in prison — until authorities learned of startling test results coming out of the Washington State Patrol's Tacoma crime lab.

The genetic evidence excluded the victim's uncle and pointed to an unknown man. The airtight case suddenly had a gaping hole.

Four months later, on Jan. 8, 2002, prosecutors offered a deal. The defendant pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of child molestation, shaving a decade off his sentence.

A couple of weeks after that, the lab made an embarrassing discovery.

The mystery man was a mistake.

Forensic scientist Mike Dornan had bungled the test, accidentally contaminating the child's clothing with DNA from another case he'd been working on.

DNA contamination and errors at the State Patrol crime labs are recurring problems, an investigation by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has found.

Test Tubes

Forensic scientists contaminated tests or made other mistakes while handling DNA evidence in at least 23 cases involving major crimes over the last three years, according to State Patrol and court records.

The list of DNA testing errors, uncovered through public-records requests and interviews with defense attorneys and experts, offers an unusual glimpse into what can go wrong. Crime labs across the country are struggling with similar problems but documented evidence has been hard to come by.

The State Patrol cases reveal that the technology has an Achilles' heel: human error.

Forensic scientists tainted tests with their own DNA in eight of the 23 cases. They made mistakes in six others, from throwing out evidence swabs to misreading results, fingering the wrong rape suspect. Tests were contaminated by DNA from unrelated cases in three examinations, and between evidence in the same case in another. The source of contamination in five other tests is unknown.

Every cell in the human body contains a copy of a person's unique DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, a microscopic foot-long strand that determines eye color, height and other inherited characteristics. A DNA match is considered infallible proof of guilt or innocence in many crimes.

Sophisticated DNA testing has played a crucial role in high-profile cases, including the crime lab's work in helping put Green River Killer Gary Ridgway behind bars for life last year and cracking a number of "cold-case" murders.

Crime lab officials here and elsewhere don't like to talk about the fact that the same test that can link someone to a crime scene with a few minuscule cells left on a doorknob can also be contaminated by a passing sneeze. Or that DNA tests are only as reliable as the humans doing them — a troubling prospect when dealing with evidence that has the power to exonerate suspects or imprison them for life.

“Technology has Achilles heel:
Human Error”

"The amazing thing is how many screw-ups they have for a technique that they go into court and say is infallible," said William C. Thompson, a forensic expert and professor of criminology and law at the University of California-Irvine, who reviewed the incidents at the request of the P-I.

"What we're seeing in these 23 cases is really the tip of the iceberg."

That's because the lab is only catching obvious cases that likely signal more widespread problems, Thompson said.

State Patrol lab officials disagree, saying they have strict protocols in place that guarantee these incidents represent only a tiny fraction of the 1,400 DNA cases handled each year.

"We're as good as any lab and probably better than many," said Barry Logan, who as director of the crime labs — the Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau — oversees a $21 million biennial budget and seven labs processing evidence for the bulk of Washington's criminal cases.

Although the labs only recently set up a mandatory reporting system for DNA mistakes, officials are "100 percent certain that with all the precautions we catch everything," said Gary Shutler, who supervises the lab system's DNA work.

That's almost impossible to measure because the overburdened lab system, faced with a rapidly expanding DNA caseload, operates almost entirely outside of state and federal legislation, like its counterparts across the country.

Even the state-of-the-art FBI crime lab in Quantico, Va., was shaken by scandal recently when a DNA analyst, Jacqueline Blake, was caught falsifying her lab reports over a two-year period. Blake skipped an important step in her DNA tests, then lied about it.

A Justice Department report two months ago said the FBI lab's testing procedures needed tightening and criticized officials for dragging their heels on retesting Blake's cases and notifying affected defendants.

Congress tried to address the gap in government oversight of crime labs a decade ago by asking the FBI to set up DNA guidelines that crime labs must follow to get federal funding and use the national DNA criminal databank.

Yet a private medical lab testing your blood-cholesterol level faces more government scrutiny than forensic scientists handling evidence that could put a defendant on death row.

The single cotton-tipped swab contained an invisible speck of DNA that would make or break the state's case against a Kirkland school bus driver accused of raping a developmentally disabled student.

What began as a straightforward test would end up in a legal tussle over the credibility of the Marysville crime lab's work.

The evidence landed on the desk of forensic scientist Brian Smelser, a four-year lab employee.

His February 2001 report pointed to suspect Kirby Wayne Lyons, a Lake Washington School District employee, as the major source of DNA. The report, however, failed to explain traces of DNA from a second male, and made no mention that Smelser had run the test three times due to problems.

Smelser had also told the prosecutor he'd used less of the sample than had actually been consumed, something the defense interpreted as a cover-up but which Smelser said was a simple error.

It was only after Lyons' attorney raised questions that the truth came out: Smelser had contaminated all three tests with his own DNA.

"Mr. Smelser's sloppy reporting techniques and concealment of botched tests cast further doubt on whether any test he performed in this case is reliable," wrote defense attorney Jeff Cohen in a pre-trial motion seeking to exclude Smelser as an expert witness.

Smelser said he would never deliberately withhold information about his work. "There is nothing worth losing my job or reputation over — no mistake," he said yesterday.

The defense also attacked Smelser's credentials, saying studies for his bachelor's degree in biology hadn't included a biochemistry course, a minimum requirement for crime lab DNA work. When the lab asked Smelser to take a makeup course, he skipped the lab work, according to Cohen. Crime lab officials said they waived the lab time because it was too basic.

To salvage their case, prosecutors persuaded a judge to let them send what was left of the sample to a private lab in Richmond, Calif., to be retested even though usual procedure was to hand it over to defense counsel. The DNA evidence was crucial because the victim, a young woman with an IQ of 40, would not be able to testify.

"I didn't want a cross-claim at trial that there was another person out there who might have contributed it (DNA)," said King County Deputy Prosecutor Jim Rogers.

At a cost of $5,035, the private lab, run by renowned forensic scientist Ed Blake, matched the DNA to Lyons, and confirmed Smelser had contaminated the first tests.

"That case started out as a total unmitigated disaster," said Blake in a telephone interview. He was particularly concerned that Smelser had failed to disclose his mistakes in his report, something Blake insists on at his lab.

Lyons, then 50, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of third-degree rape in June 2002 and was sentenced to a year in jail. He was originally charged with second-degree rape. The lab's mishandling of the evidence likely played a "significant role" in the prosecutor's decision to reduce the charges, Cohen said.

Rogers disagreed, saying that the plea was offered because the victim wasn't able to testify. Smelser's mistake, while "unfortunate," didn't affect the outcome of the case or undermine his confidence in the lab's work, Rogers said.

"There was no systemic problem in that," Rogers said. "The quality of the crime lab work has gone up tremendously. They have great scientists there."

The crime labs' forensic scientists are now required to disclose errors in their DNA-testing reports, according to Shutler, a Canadian forensic expert hired two years ago to oversee the state system's two dozen DNA analysts. He made that change about six months ago.

"The old standard was, 'Something minor happened and I won't mention it,' " said Shutler. "I'm trying to change that attitude now."

Shutler also defended Smelser, saying aggressive defense attorneys will seize upon anything to help a client.

"It's an adversarial system," Shutler said. "The forensic scientist is often caught in the middle."

In the late '80s to mid-'90s, the early days of DNA "fingerprinting," it was a lot harder for forensic scientists to contaminate the tests.

A decade ago, DNA tests needed a quarter-size stain of blood or semen to produce a strong match and took about six weeks to complete. Today, the lab needs only about 40 human cells, invisible to the naked eye, to produce a DNA profile using an extremely sensitive method called "polymerase chain-reaction," or PCR.

With PCR tests, DNA is extracted from a sample, mixed with special chemicals and put into computerized machines that make thousands of copies of the DNA. The process takes days instead of weeks.

The type of PCR test now in use, called "short tandem repeats," or STR, measures DNA at 13 sites, and feeds results to a computer. STR tests can predict a DNA match that has only a one in a quadrillion — a million billion — chance of being the same as a randomly selected person.

But the sensitivity of the test also means it detects even the slightest contamination.

In January, the Seattle lab's DNA supervisor, George Chan, was chatting with a forensic scientist who was examining evidence in a child rape case. Although Chan had no other exposure to the case, a subsequent test found Chan's DNA, as well as that of the suspect, in the evidence — a sample taken from a pair of boxer shorts. The likely culprit: saliva spewed during Chan's conversation.

DNA analysts are now required to use a Plexiglas screen, wear a mask or refrain from talking while testing DNA, Shutler said.

The lab system has been tightening up all its procedures to reduce contamination, from training staff on sterile procedures to tracking the incidents. The DNA profiles of forensic scientists are also kept on file to compare with suspicious results. Police officers who collect evidence at crime scenes could soon be asked to do the same.

"The challenge is to contain it, identify it and disclose it," Shutler said of the risk of contamination.

The occasional "contamination event" is inevitable, said Blake, the California scientist, but crime labs aren't routinely disclosing those miscues.

"We have a duty to tell people about that," he said.

Many crime labs are "stunningly ignorant: about contamination, said Janine Arvizu, an Albuquerque-based forensic scientist who has audited federal and private industry labs.

"I wish they'd step up and say, 'We need help cleaning it up,' " Arvizu said. "But they won't. It's pretty scary."

The number of incidents at the State Patrol labs, she said, indicates a "significant contamination problem."

When the mystery man's DNA showed up in evidence from the Pacific child-rape case, Detective James Pickett was mystified.

"That was a pretty big deal," he said. "We did a lot of work trying to figure out who this other guy was."

Perplexed, Pickett pushed to have the evidence retested, but the explanation came too late.

Today, he believes what happened two years ago was an aberration. "The lab does a lot of great work," he said, "(but) they are still human."

Rogers, the King County prosecutor who handled the case, called the DNA mix-up "an issue for the case," but said the No. 1 reason behind the plea bargain was to spare the victim from testifying.

The defendant, who had a previous child molestation conviction, ended up with a 16-year prison term. The P-I is not identifying him in order to protect the victim's privacy.

The forensic scientist, Dornan, was temporarily taken off casework after the mistake was discovered, a crime lab report indicated. Dornan refused to comment on the case.

The contamination was traced to Dornan failing to sterilize scissors between cutting evidence samples in the two cases. After that problem came to light, lab officials adopted more stringent sterilization procedures.

Since then, at least two more incidents of cross-contamination between cases have occurred — one in 2003, and one this year, records show. Both mistakes were caught before a report was issued because the contamination showed up in control samples that are not supposed to contain any DNA, lab officials said.

Contamination in control samples is the easiest type to catch and can point to more widespread problems, said Thompson, the criminology professor.

"Who can believe the only contamination they have is those (cases) where they can detect it? There's inevitably lots more," Thompson said.

That contention was recently confirmed by a study in the May 2004 Journal of Forensic Sciences that found that clean controls don't guarantee contaminant-free evidence.

If DNA from a suspect's reference sample contaminated evidence, there'd be little chance of detecting it, Thompson said.

"That's the royal road to a false conviction."

Crime lab forensic scientist Denise Olson called Seattle police with good news in December 2002. Her DNA testing revealed a match to the suspect in a case involving a brutal rape and attempted murder. The victim suffered a fractured skull, lacerated liver and other injuries.

Detectives contacted a deputy prosecutor, who prepared to file charges against a former boyfriend of the military doctor attacked in the May 2002 assault. Police got ready to extradite the suspect from Denver.

Eleven days after declaring the match, Olson called back.

The test had actually ruled out the suspect. She'd misinterpreted the results, and so had a colleague who did a quick check. Another forensic scientist noticed the error during peer-review, a process in which workers double-check each other's work.

"I frankly had a brain fart," Olson said in a recent interview.

Her mistake was a "false-positive match" — one of the worst mistakes a forensic scientist can make, said Arvizu, the auditor. "That's a classic error that reflects a bias on the part of the analyst wanting to make a match."

Olson, who has worked in the crime lab system since 1998, said she tried not to be swayed by detectives' belief that they had a strong suspect. "We're all human," she said. "I tried not to let it influence me. But I can't say it never does."

Records show she didn't keep notes on her calls to police, as required. She also threw out the erroneous draft report, a violation of lab policy.

Police called lab officials to complain in January 2003.

An investigation concluded that Olson had misread the test, which contained a mixture of DNA from at least two people — a complex sample that requires careful interpretation. She missed indications in the DNA that excluded the suspect.

The lab's internal review said Olson rushed her work in order to satisfy police.

"The quality of interpretations and data review should not be compromised under pressure from the submitting agencies to prematurely release results," the internal crime lab report said.

Lab officials later issued a systemwide memo stating that cases must be reviewed by a colleague and approved by a supervisor before DNA results are released verbally.

It wasn't the first time Olson's DNA work had been criticized. Twice in the previous six months, she made mistakes, running samples in the wrong order in a robbery case and throwing out evidence swabs in a homicide.

"It was a particularly stressful time," Olson said, adding that she transferred from the Seattle to Spokane lab during that period. She had to take a backlog of six cases with her from Seattle that weren't finished.

Keeping up with the explosive demand for DNA testing is a challenge for the labs.

DNA now has the potential to help solve everything from decades-old homicides to break-ins. Even auto thefts could be solved with DNA, although the lab has to give priority to major cases right now.

Requests for genetic testing were up 60 percent in the first three months of this year compared with the same period in 2003 — up from 305 requests to 502. The lab system has been able to cope with the increase because several staff recently finished DNA training. And six new DNA positions are proposed in next year's budget.

Right now, at least one-third of the DNA analysts are inexperienced.

Said Shutler: "They're under a hell of a lot of pressure to get it out as fast as possible and do it perfectly."

A decade ago, Congress took a stab at reform by passing the DNA Identification Act, requiring the FBI to set up a DNA advisory board to develop crime lab standards.

The law also provided funding to improve the quality of forensic labs, and money for the FBI to expand its Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. The databank contains genetic profiles of convicted offenders and DNA from unsolved crimes.

Labs must meet the FBI's DNA standards to qualify for federal funding and have access to the national DNA databank. That is an incentive for financially strapped crime labs, including Washington's system.

In 2000, the State Patrol received $2.1 million to hire a private lab to help clear a backlog of 30,000 DNA samples from convicted felons that had not been analyzed or entered into CODIS. An additional $1.8 million grant in 2003 is paying for 56,000 more felon samples. The lab has also received federal grants totaling almost $1.5 million since 2000 to upgrade lab equipment.

To satisfy FBI standards, the State Patrol must submit to an external "DNA audit" once every two years. The lab contracts with officials from other state crime labs to do the audit.

A review of three of those audits since 1997 indicated that the State Patrol labs passed most items on the checklist with flying colors.

"We're audited all over the place," Logan said. "If we had any systemic problems I guess they'd come to light in the process."

The 1999 audit did note that several DNA analysts needed to verify they'd taken biochemistry courses, while the 2000 audit suggested staff needed better training in interpreting complex DNA mixtures.

The 2002 audit was done by the National Forensic Science Technology Center, a federally funded organization originally set up by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. That group hires DNA experts from public and private labs to do the audits.

The most serious problems cited during the 2002 audit were at the Spokane lab, where the inspector warned the "risk of contamination is high" because of crowding in the basement facility. A new lab is under construction.

The audit did not mention mistakes or contamination requiring "corrective action" at any of the labs, raising questions about the thoroughness of the reviews. The Marysville lab reported having no problems when records show there were at least two flawed cases in the previous year.

"It almost makes you think the whole thing is a rubber stamp," said Thompson, the criminology professor.

But Mark Nelson, who runs the audit program for the national forensic center, said auditors pull sample cases to make sure problems are corrected. "We are very thorough," he said.

A backlog of audit reports at the FBI meant the lab didn't receive proof it passed the 2002 review until three months ago.

Crime lab officials say the ultimate test of their work is what happens in court.

DNA results are examined by defense experts who review lab notes, analyze computer data and rerun tests to double-check accuracy. Experts also observe DNA testing at the lab when a sample is too small to divide.

Yet critics say many defense attorneys are easily intimidated by DNA cases and don't dig deeper when a suspect has been "matched" to a crime. Instead, they cut the best deal they can.

That means only a small percentage of cases are ever reviewed by defense experts, said Dan Krane, a biology professor at Wright State University in Ohio, who runs a private forensic consulting company.

"There's nobody watching the henhouse," Krane said.

Underlying this divide in the forensic community are divergent views about the role state-run crime labs play in the criminal justice system.

Crime lab employees say they are objective scientists doing their best to uncover the truth -- not biased members of the prosecution team. "We don't see ourselves that way," said Logan, adding that one-third of their testing excludes suspects. "We have no interest in seeing the wrong person in jail for a crime."

That doesn't reassure critics, who say crime labs are primarily set up to service police and prosecutors. "That goal comes to cloud their need for scientific rigor," said Thompson, the criminology professor.

Society deserves more assurances that justice will be served when crime labs wield the powerful tool of DNA testing, he said.

"Innocent people aren't that common," Thompson said. "The question is, do they have the ability to detect when an innocent person comes along?"

Crime labs too beholden to prosecutors, critics say

Flawed forensic work not only leads to wrongful convictions, it leaves criminals on the street.

That's a good reason to care about reforming state-run crime labs, legal experts say.

"What you have in this country is an epidemic of crime lab scandals," said Barry Scheck, president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Scheck is co-founder of the New-York based Innocence Project, a group that has helped exonerate 145 wrongfully convicted prisoners.

"Forensic science has to be an independent third force in the justice system," he said, "not beholden to prosecutors and police."

Proposed solutions center on more government scrutiny and better-funded labs. At the top of the list is a federal law requiring crime labs to comply with the same kind of rules medical labs have had to follow since 1967.

Clinical lab workers have to take frequent "blind" proficiency tests that are mixed into their regular work — unlike crime lab staff who know when they're being tested.

Blind testing would uncover a lot more errors at state crime labs, said Janine Arvizu, an expert from Albuquerque, who has audited federal and private labs. "The forensic industry just won't bite that bullet," she said. "There's this attitude that, 'We work for the good guys — just trust us.' "

Even the national voluntary accreditation group recommends, but does not require, blind testing.

"If you know it's a proficiency test, the person may do better work than usual and double-check it more," said Ralph Keaton, executive director of American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.

Washington crime lab officials say blind testing is too costly and difficult to administer. The system would have to design its own tests and collude with police to pass them off as real since forensic scientists consult with officers, said Barry Logan, director of the Washington State Patrol's Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau.

Critics also want a federal law to require regular inspections by independent outside experts and licensing of forensic scientists.

"We really want to get the bad guys who did it," said John Strait, a Seattle University law professor who teaches forensics. "We want reliability in the system."

More controversial is the proposal that crime labs should operate independently, as Britain's do, rather than be run by police agencies.

That doesn't sit well with Logan, who said the lab's work isn't compromised by its ties to the State Patrol. Only 7 percent of the crime labs' cases are referred by the State Patrol, most of those drug-related. And the State Patrol's clout with legislators on budget matters is a big advantage, he said.

Federal legislation would duplicate standards already established by voluntary accreditation, according to Logan.

The real problem is inadequate funding for staff and equipment, said Logan and veteran prosecutors.

"There aren't enough people to do the work," said Mark Roe, Snohomish County's chief criminal deputy prosecutor.

Logan is asking legislators to approve funding for 20 new forensic positions next year when updated labs open in Vancouver and Spokane. That will help clear current backlogs of up to a year.

Thanks to the hit TV show "CSI," crime labs are attracting plenty of forensic wannabes. Recruiting experienced forensic scientists is harder because Washington's pay scale is 20 percent below that of other Western states, Logan said. Entry-level wages begin at $31,740 a year and reach $63,000 for veterans. Efforts to secure pay raises have failed during the last two years.

To encourage more applicants, lab officials have worked with Eastern Washington University in Cheney to set up a forensic chemistry program, and will soon have a forensic biology program as well. A bachelor of science degree is now required for most lab jobs.

Fingerprint examiners need only a minimum of four years of related experience. By 2005, a university degree will be the recommended national minimum.

The last voluntary accreditation of the State Patrol lab system, done in September 1999, found that six of its seven fingerprint examiners didn't have university degrees. The fingerprint supervisor had an associate degree in secretarial science.

The public will be more willing to pay for improvements if crime labs are held accountable, critics say.

State legislators should set up independent agencies that investigate allegations of misconduct at crime labs, according to the national defense attorneys group.

That should include a full review of past cases handled by a discredited scientist.

"Problems are exposed and then it's back to business as usual," said William C. Thompson, a criminology and law professor at the University of California-Irvine. "We need some sort of independent body with the power to hold hearings."

DNA testing mistakes at the State Patrol crime labs

Contamination and other errors in DNA analysis have occurred at the Washington State Patrol crime labs, most of it the result of sloppy work.

The most common problems are cross-contamination by microscopic traces of unrelated evidence and forensic scientists accidentally mixing their own DNA with the sample being tested. That can happen, for example, when the analyst talks while handling a sample, leaving an invisible deposit of saliva.

Below are the 23 cases of contamination or errors in major criminal cases the lab system has admitted to, according to State Patrol and court documents:


Problem: Cross-contamination

When and where: July 2002, Spokane lab

Forensic scientist: Lisa Turpen

Case: child rape

What happened: Turpen contaminated one of four vaginal swabs with semen from a positive control sample. Corrected report issued almost two years later in March 2004. ....Yakima prosecutors offered plea deal during the trial, with defendant pleading guilty to two gross misdemeanors. Turpen's mistake was a factor, according to defense.


Problem: Erroneous lab report

When and where: August 2002, Seattle lab

Forensic scientist: William Stubbs

Case: Fatal police shooting of Robert Thomas

What happened: Two hours before testifying at inquest, Stubbs discovered his crime lab report was wrong and notified prosecutor. His report said test found brown stain on gun was likely blood, but his notes had no indication of blood. ... Corrected report issued in September 2002. ... Co-worker reviewing case did not catch mistake.


Problem: Self-contamination

When and where: April 2001, Spokane lab

Forensic scientists: Charles Solomon, Lisa Turpen

Case: rape/kidnapping/assault

What happened: In separate tests, Solomon and Turpen contaminated hair-root tests with their own DNA. Solomon also contaminated reference blood sample with his DNA. ...Three defendants were convicted.


Problem: Testing error

When and where: September 2002, Marysville lab

Forensic scientist: Mike Croteau

Case: robbery/assault

What happened: Rushing to meet deadlines, Croteau mixed up reference samples from victim and suspect. He reported incorrect findings verbally to prosecutor, then discovered his mistake. ... Defendant pleaded guilty.


Problem: Cross-contamination
When and where: August 2003, Seattle lab

Forensic scientist: Robin Bussoletti

Case: homicide

What happened: Bussoletti likely contaminated work surface while testing a blood sample from a convicted felon during training. Next DNA analyst who used work station noticed contamination in chemical solution that is not supposed to contain DNA.


Problem: Cross-contamination

When and where: January 2004, Tacoma lab

Forensic scientist: Jeremy Sanderson

Case: child rape

What happened: Sanderson failed to change gloves between handling evidence in two cases. He noticed contamination in chemical solution. ... Defendant convicted and sent to prison.


Problem: Error during testing

When and where: June 2002, Seattle lab

Forensic scientist: Denise Olson

Case: aggravated murder

What happened: Olson did initial test to look for blood on shoes. She got weak positive result, then threw out swabs. She didn't document findings or notify police. Kirkland police complained because discarded swabs couldn't be tested for DNA. ... Shoes sent to private lab for retesting. ... Defendant Kim Mason convicted and sentenced to life without release.


Problem: Error in DNA test interpretation

When and where: October 1998, Seattle lab

Forensic scientist: George Chan

Case: rape

What happened: Chan misstated statistical likelihood of match with suspect. Co-worker reviewing case didn't catch error. ... Pierce County prosecutor noticed mistake at pretrial conference in September 2000. ... Defendant convicted.


Problem: Error in testing procedure

When and where: September 2002, Seattle lab

Forensic scientist: Denise Olson

Case: robbery/assault

What happened: Olson tested known DNA samples before evidence collected at crime scene — a violation of lab procedure aimed at preventing cross-contamination. A co-worker caught the mistake while reviewing the case.... Tests were redone. ... Defendant pleaded guilty.


Problem: Self-contamination

When and where: November 2002, Tacoma lab

Forensic scientist: Mike Dornan

Case: rape

What happened: Dornan contaminated DNA test of victim's underwear with his own DNA. May have resulted from talking during testing process.... Defendant pleaded guilty.


Problem: Unknown source of contamination

When and where: January 2004, Tacoma lab

Forensic scientist: Christopher Sewell

Case: homicide

What happened: Sewell found low level of DNA from unknown source in blood sample from victim. May have come from blood transfusion of victim before death. ... Case pending.


Problem: Self-contamination

When and where: March 2004, Tacoma lab

Forensic scientist: William Dean

Case: rape

What happened: Dean contaminated control sample with his own DNA while testing police evidence. ... No suspect.


Problem: Unknown source of contamination

When and where: January 2003, Spokane lab

Forensic scientist: Lisa Turpen

Case: murder

What happened: Turpen found unidentified female DNA in control sample while testing evidence in Stevens County double-murder case.... Defendant convicted.


Problem: Unknown source of contamination

When and where: January 2003, Spokane lab

Forensic scientist: Lisa Turpen

Case: robbery/kidnapping

What happened: Turpen found unidentified female DNA in control sample while testing evidence in Yakima County case. Evidence tested same day as evidence in Example No.13.... Case pending.


Problem: Self-contamination

When and where: September 2003, Marysville lab

Forensic scientist: Greg Frank

Case: murder

What happened: Frank contaminated control samples with his own DNA during testing in Snohomish County case. ...Case pending.


Problem: Self-contamination

When and where: September 2003, Marysville lab

Forensic scientist: Greg Frank

Case: child molestation/rape

What happened: Frank contaminated control samples with his own DNA during testing in Kitsap County case. ... Defendant pleaded guilty.

EXAMPLES NO. 17 & 18

Problem: Unknown source of contamination

When and where: October 2003, Seattle lab

Forensic scientists: Phil Hodge, Amy Jagman

Cases: unknown

What happened: Hodge and Jagman both discovered unknown source of contamination in chemical used during DNA testing. Chemical discarded and evidence retested.


Problem: Self-contamination

When and where: October 2002, Spokane lab

Forensic scientists: Charles Solomon, Lisa Turpen

Case: murder

What happened: Solomon found Turpen's DNA on three bullet casings retrieved from scene of Richland double murder. ... Defense expert disputed this at trial, testifying that DNA profile belonged to unknown female. ... Defendant Keith Hilton convicted.


Problem: Cross-contamination

When and where: February 2002, Tacoma

Forensic scientist: Mike Dornan

Case: child rape

What happened: Dornan contaminated evidence in King County rape case with DNA from a previous case, likely by failing to properly sterilize scissors. ... Defendant pleaded guilty to a reduced charge before contamination was discovered.


Problem: Self-contamination

When and where: January 2001, Marysville lab

Forensic scientist: Brian Smelser

Case: rape

What happened: Smelser contaminated three tests with his own DNA in Kirkland rape case. Prosecutor had to send remaining half-sample to California lab for retesting.... Defendant pleaded guilty to reduced charge.


Problem: Error in testing

When and where: December 2002, Seattle lab

Forensic scientist: Denise Olson

Case: rape/attempted murder

What happened: Olson misinterpreted DNA results, telling Seattle police their suspect was a match. Co-worker caught error 11 days later, just as charges were about to be filed.... Case unsolved.


Problem: Self-contamination

When and where: January 2004, Seattle lab

Forensic scientist: George Chan/William Stubbs

Case: child rape

What happened: Chan's DNA found in suspect's boxer shorts by Stubbs. Problem traced to Chan talking to Stubbs during testing.... Suspect pleaded guilty.

Sources: Washington State Patrol documents; court documents; defense interviews

Produce crime lab error rates, some urge
But defense attorneys would misuse data, scientists counter

The high stakes of DNA testing have prompted debate about whether the nation's crime labs should have to produce error rates. Defense experts and academics say such a statistic would provide a valid way to gauge the reliability of a lab's work. Forensic scientists in state-run and private crime labs say error rates would be meaningless.

A generic error rate for a lab doesn't tell you whether a specific DNA test is correct, said Gary Shutler, who oversees DNA testing for the Washington crime lab system.

Defense attorneys would use labwide error rates to try to undermine every DNA result, Shutler said. Even defining what type of contamination or errors should be included in an error rate would be difficult.

But some experts argue that error rates should be a factor in weighing DNA evidence in court — something prosecutors, police and crime lab officials have a "vested interest" in avoiding.

"An error rate is an albatross around their neck," said Dan Krane, a biology professor at Ohio's Wright State University and president of a forensic consulting company. "It limits the strength of their testimony in court."

One of the best ways to determine error rates would be to use blind proficiency tests — exams disguised as regular casework.

Right now, forensic scientists at the Washington State Patrol labs, and most other state-run crime labs, know when they are taking a proficiency test. DNA analysts must pass two of those tests each year.

Krane said open proficiency tests typically use pristine samples that bear little resemblance to complex casework.

Blind proficiency testing is recommended, but not required, by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors' Laboratory Accreditation Board, an organization that offers voluntary accreditation. That group advocates the blind method not as a way to determine error rates but as a more precise test of a worker's accuracy.

A decade ago, mandatory blind testing was proposed as part of the federal DNA Identification Act.

A Justice Department panel designed blind tests, tried them out and estimated it would cost $500,000 to $1 million annually for one test per lab, according to panel member William C. Thompson, a criminology and law professor at the University of California-Irvine.

The panel wound up recommending against blind testing.

"Legislators didn't want to do anything to offend law enforcement groups," Thompson said. "Law enforcement sees this as a bleeding-heart liberal attempt to give ammunition to defense lawyers."

Blind proficiency tests would be too costly to design and administer, said Barry Logan, director of the Washington crime lab system.

"We trust people doing casework to do the work professionally," Logan said.

Oversight of crime-lab staff has often been lax

A crime lab chemist snorts heroin on the job for months, stealing the drug from evidence he was testing.

A senior DNA analyst lies to a defense attorney, fearing his testing error would be used to undermine a case against a suspected rapist.

A forensic scientist is accused of sloppy drug analysis, after a national watchdog group complains about his misleading court testimony.

In all of these cases, internal checks and balances failed. The system for double-checking work broke down in one case. In another, officials overlooked warning signs until faced with a crisis. And the work of discredited senior staffers was almost never audited, an investigation by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found.

A close look at the Washington State Patrol crime labs reveals a stressed system in which officials have been slow to deal with misconduct by long-time employees — dating back to one of the first scientists hired more than 30 years ago.

Crime lab officials say these are isolated incidents that don't reflect the high-quality work done by their 120 employees on thousands of cases a year, despite caseload and budget pressures.

"It's a constant process of learning from our mistakes and trying to do better," said Barry Logan, director of the State Patrol's Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau.

A single inept or dishonest forensic scientist, though, can undermine the integrity of the legal process, given the pivotal role the crime labs play in determining a suspect's guilt or innocence.

"It's only as good as the weakest link," said Steven Benjamin, co-chairman of the forensic evidence committee for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "When a laboratory has an inept or dishonest examiner and an inadequate response, then that whole lab becomes the weakest link."

A review of two dozen crime lab disciplinary records also raise questions about the professionalism of some scientists on the state payroll. In the past five years, a lab supervisor was caught viewing pornography on his office computer, a lab manager was fired for sexually harassing female co-workers and a DNA analyst was found sleeping on the job.

Crime labs are subject to minimal federal or state oversight. Even the last industry-led, voluntary accreditation review of Washington's system, however, found problems in all seven labs in 1999.

The lack of government scrutiny has become a national issue in the wake of high-profile scandals plaguing crime labs from Houston, where shoddy DNA work led to a wrongful conviction, to a string of problems at the FBI's pre-eminent facility in Quantico, Va.

Two months ago, Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield was jailed for two weeks as a material witness after FBI fingerprint experts mistakenly linked him to the March 11 Madrid bombings that killed 191 people.

Over the objections of Spanish investigators, three veteran FBI fingerprint examiners declared they had a "100 percent" match with Mayfield — a claim soon proved to be false.

The case not only prompted questions about the reliability of fingerprint evidence; it left people wondering whether experienced forensic scientists had let biases cloud their judgment.

And it lent credence to the complaint that too many crime lab staff see themselves as cops in white lab coats rather than objective scientists.

A simple error on a DNA test would lead to the undoing of 16-year forensic scientist John Brown.

Embarrassed by his mistake, Brown made a decision that would shatter his credibility and impugn the integrity of the entire system.

It began when Seattle police submitted vaginal swabs in an unsolved rape case to the state crime lab. Brown came up with a DNA profile of a possible male suspect but didn't find a match the first time he searched the convicted-felon DNA databank in November 1997.

During an internal review, his boss, Don McLaren, noticed that Brown had missed one of the markers in the DNA test. Brown reran the correct profile and produced a match with Craig Barfield, then 35, who had served time for burglary convictions.

Brown issued a final report linking Barfield to the DNA profile, but made no mention of his first test.

"A mistake like this is like leaving fresh salmon on the counter and ... leaving your cat in the kitchen," Brown, 54, said recently, speaking publicly for the first time.

"I saw it as much more harm that the defense would get hold of the data saying there's no match in the database, and they'd prance around and say it proves the innocence of their client."

He also destroyed his erroneous draft report, a common practice at that time, according to Brown and McLaren, but one that contradicted the legal system's basic tenet of full disclosure.

A few months later, in April 1998, Barfield's public defender, Stephanie Adraktas, grilled a nervous Brown about discrepancies in his lab notes during a pre-trial interview.

By then, Brown said he knew Barfield had been accused of a previous rape, and wanted to help bolster the case. "I didn't want this mistake to come up," he told the P-I. "So I tried to conceal it."

One of the founders of the lab's DNA section almost a decade earlier, Brown had testified in 40 DNA cases. He'd tested evidence in 300 DNA cases, according to his resume.

He said defense attorneys had begun personally attacking forensic scientists because they could no longer challenge irrefutable DNA evidence in court. They wanted to "destroy him."

"The legal stuff was a battlefield," he said.

During the interview with Adraktas, Brown was at first evasive, then lied about the existence of the draft report. As the hours ground on, Adraktas extracted the truth. "Every defense attorney wants to go out hunting and to capture a forensic scientist and I was the big buck with a full rack," Brown would later tell State Patrol investigators.

Brown's attitude stunned Adraktas. "I do find it disturbing and sad that someone whose job was to be objective and evaluate evidence fairly would do this," she said. "It wasn't his role to decide if the charged person was guilty. That was up to a jury."

To do damage control, King County Deputy Prosecutor Steven Fogg immediately sent the crucial DNA evidence to a private California lab, which confirmed the match with Barfield.

At Barfield's trial two years later, Brown, who had just been promoted to supervisor of the lab system's DNA program, admitted that he'd lied about his first test.

The State Patrol put Brown on administrative leave and launched an internal investigation. Administrators concluded Brown's credibility was tarnished, and his "untruthfulness" could be used to discredit his prior work — and the entire system.

On the verge of being fired, Brown resigned in September 2000.

The lab, in response, began limiting defense attorneys to two-hour time blocks during pre-trial interviews to ease psychological pressures on forensic scientists.

"I'm not going to defend what John Brown did," said Logan, the crime labs chief. "He got into a difficult situation and made it worse by how he handled it."

Lab officials didn't audit Brown's other cases for problems after his resignation because his previous track record was "excellent," Logan said. They did write a policy requiring staff to keep all draft reports.

"I believe we have an excellent record in disclosing as much as we believe will be relevant," Logan said.

After Barfield was convicted of rape and burglary, however, the court fined the state $5,000 for failing to disclose memos revealing Brown had been suspended during the trial.

"A fine was just an inadequate response to that," Adraktas said. "If that's all an agency will suffer as a result of withholding information in a serious case, what will prevent them from doing it again?"

The crime labs' habit of destroying erroneous draft reports was "chilling" and raises the possibility of wrongful convictions, she said.

Andraktas also questions why the agency waited two years to investigate Brown's conduct, even promoting him. She said she submitted a transcript of Brown's false statements to the State Patrol's legal counsel soon after the interview.

Logan said he didn't know about Brown's dishonesty until the trial, and isn't sure if anyone else did. Officials did know he'd destroyed the draft report, which wasn't against policy at the time. Logan said they took action as soon as Brown testified to lying.

Today, Brown in part blames what happened on the stress of dealing with defense attorneys — something police agencies discount, because employees are expected to "handle this stuff."

"We were facing on a monthly basis people who were trying to destroy our reputations," Brown said. "There was no acceptance of that."

From the earliest days of the state system, crime lab officials have floundered at reining in problem employees.

One glaring example is Donald K. Phillips, a forensic scientist hired in 1971 after a brief stint in the Seattle Police Department lab.

Phillips' skills were soon called into question, but those concerns had little effect on what would be a 15-year career with the State Patrol.

"They let him through probation even though they knew he was a problem," recalled Kay Sweeney, a former crime lab quality assurance manager for the State Patrol. "Once you passed probation, it's very hard to be terminated."

In August 1973, Phillips failed an 11-month trial run as a supervisor. His job evaluation, while praising his loyalty, cited poor communication with fellow employees and "an inability to properly perceive the necessary approach" to casework. It recommended he not be put in charge of cases.

Over the next two years, Phillips was promoted twice. By 1977, he was regularly collecting evidence at major crime scenes. Four years later, he was supervising homicide and rape crime-scene investigations.

It became clear in the mid-'80s that Phillips had misrepresented his credentials. On the witness stand, he'd testified more than once to having a chemistry major. In reality, he had majored in agricultural science at Ohio State University.

"I just didn't tell them what kind of chemistry," Phillips said in a recent interview.

In April 1985, lab officials fired Phillips for misconduct after he frightened a hotel maid by showing her gruesome crime scene photos in his room while out of town for a trial. The maid told police she feared he might be the Green River Killer.

Phillips said he was really fired for filing too much overtime. Eight months later, he won an appeal and was reinstated. Lab officials at first restricted him to drug cases.

Phillips said he was surprised when his boss, Sweeney, sent him to collect evidence at a Kitsap County crime scene on Sept.29, 1986. After reminding Phillips about proper procedures, Sweeney gave him the green light to search a garage where police believed 16-year-old Tracy Parker had been bludgeoned to death two weeks earlier. It would become a capital case, ultimately putting the killer — Brian Keith Lord — behind bars for life.

Police soon reported that Phillips had sprayed a claw hammer with too much of a chemical used to detect blood, preventing further testing.

Phillips denies doing anything wrong. "To this day, I believe there was enough blood to get a typing."

The real problem wasn't Phillips' mistake but his attempt to cover it up by denying he'd sprayed the hammer — to the point of stating that in his lab report, according to Sweeney and State Patrol documents.

"He chose to falsify what he'd done. If he was going to do that to me, his supervisor, I couldn't trust him," Sweeney said.

When the State Patrol launched an internal investigation, Phillips resigned in December 1986.

"I still dream about it — I loved the lab," said Phillips, 65, who moved to Oklahoma and started a business — his own perennial greenhouse. "I thought I'd be there forever."

Despite Phillips' turbulent history, lab officials did not audit any of the thousands of cases he'd handled, or review his testimony in more than 50 cases.

Lab officials often point to proficiency tests as proof of forensic scientists' competence.

Crime lab workers must pass one test annually in each specialty to satisfy voluntary rules set by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors' Laboratory Accreditation Board. Staff know they're being tested, rather than having exams slipped in with regular casework.

Some say the system needs tightening.

Tacoma lab forensic scientist Charles Vaughan took a routine proficiency exam in September 1998, testing his ability to interpret footprint evidence.

When accreditation inspectors visited the Tacoma lab in September 1999, they couldn't find any record of Vaughan's exam.

It soon became apparent that Vaughan's supervisor, Terry McAdam, had never reviewed the test — or realized that Vaughan failed to correctly match all of the footprints with the right shoe.

Vaughan was pulled off that type of casework for about six weeks until he could redo the test, plus pass another exam.

The same year Vaughan bungled his proficiency test, he mistakenly linked hairs found at a Thurston County burglary to a suspect, according to the suspect's attorney, Richard Woodrow.

Woodrow said he hired a private Seattle forensic scientist who concluded the hairs didn't match. The prosecutor dismissed the burglary charge in September 1998.

During the lab system's last accreditation, inspectors identified two other forensic scientists whose proficiency testing was not up to date. They also noted that technicians doing DNA work for the convicted felon databank had never taken a proficiency test, although that was not mandatory.

Since the last accreditation, several lab employees have made mistakes on proficiency tests, according to internal lab documents.

In the past year, a firearms examiner in Spokane and one in Seattle both flunked tests. The year before, a Seattle forensic scientist failed a shoeprint exam.

When employees fail a test, they're taken off casework until they can pass another exam. If problems persist, a supervisor monitors their work or puts them on a work-improvement plan.

"The work is being done by human beings and human beings sometimes make mistakes," Logan said.

That doesn't reassure critics who say proficiency testing is already too easy.

"It's such a hokey test," said Dan Krane, a biology professor at Wright State University in Ohio who runs a forensic consulting firm. "They all do it at the same time and use pristine samples which aren't anything like casework."

What Phillips said happened in the early 1980s was even worse.

"Everybody would put their heads together and get the right answers," he recalled. "We wanted to be right."

The chemist's odd behavior raised co-workers' suspicions as far back as 1998. Yet two years would pass before the State Patrol intervened.

After starting work at the Marysville lab in April 1997, James Boaz noticed that his colleague, Michael Hoover, handled an inordinate number of heroin cases. Sometimes Hoover even took over Boaz's cases without permission.

Boaz began locking up his files in his drawer when he wasn't at his desk. He also heard "loud snorting" coming from Hoover's desk, Boaz would later tell State Patrol investigators.

Chemist David Northrop said he first noticed problems in 1999 when Hoover posted a note soliciting heroin cases from the intake clerks. Northrop complained to his boss, Erik Neilson. By summer 2000, Boaz and Northrop reported that Hoover was secretive when handling heroin cases and assigned himself too many. They suspected he was making up results.

When Neilson confronted Hoover in September 2000, the 11-year employee claimed he was stashing heroin for police to use in training drug-sniffing dogs. Neilson warned him to stop.

Two months later, Boaz and Northrop reiterated their suspicions and Neilson contacted the State Patrol to report that Hoover might be stealing heroin from evidence.

The State Patrol immediately launched an internal investigation, installed a hidden video camera above Hoover's desk and later questioned him.

Hoover confessed, saying he sniffed heroin in the lab to ease chronic back pain.

"I don't want anything bad to reflect on the State Patrol," Hoover told investigators on Dec. 22, 2000. "I found that if I sniff a little bit of ... heroin once in a while, it makes the pain go away where I can sleep at night."

Snohomish County prosecutors charged him with one count of tampering with evidence and one count of official misconduct, both misdemeanors. Felony charges weren't filed because no heroin was found in Hoover's possession.

Hoover resigned, pleaded guilty to the charges and received an 11-month jail sentence in November 2001. The scandal led to the dismissal of hundreds of pending drug cases in Snohomish, Island, Skagit, Whatcom, Jefferson and Clallam counties. The state Court of Appeals also overturned convictions in two drug cases because Hoover had tested the evidence.

"He stands by his test results," said Hoover's former attorney, Stephen Garvey. "I suspect juries would have still convicted."

The State Patrol did its best to minimize the damage, emphasizing that "the system worked" because lab employees turned Hoover in.

Asked about the delay in investigating Hoover's suspicious behavior, Logan said he and others have thought long and hard about what might have led to earlier detection and are now more likely to see the red flags: "They were seeing these things and they never wanted to put two and two together about someone who was a colleague and a friend."

The State Patrol lab relies on peer review as its primary safeguard for catching mistakes. Lab notes and reports for every case must be reviewed by at least one other forensic scientist before being released.

While effective to a point, peer review has its limits.

Interpersonal conflicts get played out during reviews. Overloaded scientists do only cursory looks. Errors are missed due to inexperience.

A troubling breakdown in that system came to light during an internal audit of the work of Spokane forensic scientist Arnold Melnikoff.

Lab officials decided to review his work after Melnikoff was accused of helping wrongfully convict a Montana man of rape based on erroneous hair-analysis work he did for that state's lab in the 1980s.

The April 2003 audit examined 100 of Melnikoff's felony drug cases dating back four years and found troubling flaws in 30, ranging from insufficient data to identify substances to mistakes in documentation. The report described Melnikoff's drug-analysis work as "sloppy" and "built around speed and short-cuts."

Melnikoff, who had been on paid leave since November 2002, contested every finding in the audit. In a written rebuttal, he wrote that he'd never failed a proficiency test or had a negative performance review in his 14-year employment.

And he pointed out that every drug case he'd analyzed had passed peer review: "If there was a 'problem,' it was a statewide laboratory problem," Melnikoff wrote.

The State Patrol fired Melnikoff in March, saying his 1990 testimony in a Montana rape trial had undermined his credibility. Melnikoff is appealing his firing.

Logan conceded that Melnikoff's case revealed employees had become lax about peer review, especially when dealing with a difficult co-worker. "The people doing peer review were only taking him on on the major errors," said Logan, who now requires supervisors to do spot checks as well.

What's really needed is more rigorous science, said Edward Blake, a California forensic scientist whose work has helped free dozens of wrongly convicted prisoners.

"This is an operation like 'I'm OK, you're OK,' " Blake said.

Moral integrity and honesty are key qualities for crime lab employees whose work will help convict or exonerate suspects.

Job applicants take lie-detector tests that include questions about illegal drug use. One- third of applicants are disqualified because they've smoked marijuana in the previous three years.

Once hired, crime lab scientists are supposed to follow the State Patrol's code of conduct. But over the last five years, 25 of them have been disciplined for violating those rules. Complaints included everything from arguing with co-workers or leaving a loaded rifle propped against a workbench to lying about travel and releasing confidential documents to a family member.

One-third of the scientists received a written reprimand. Others were suspended briefly or counseled. Seven were fired, although one of them won back his job.

Timothy Nishimura, then manager of the Marysville lab, was fired in September 2000 for misconduct, including sexual harassment of female employees dating back to 1991, according to State Patrol documents.

Nishimura appealed his firing, and was reinstated with back pay in March 2002. He was demoted to a document-examiner job in the Seattle lab. He refused comment for this story.

In another case, Kevin Fortney, supervisor in the Spokane lab, was investigated in December 2000 for cruising Internet porn sites at work. Fortney admitted his behavior and was suspended for two days. He has since been promoted to manager of that lab. Fortney didn't respond to requests for comment.

Crime labs seem hard-pressed to find scientists who are not only well-educated but can analyze complex cases, said Blake, the California expert. "Just because they can extract DNA doesn't mean they can think through problems," he said.

The most common problem isn't testing errors but incorrect interpretation of the data, said Ray Grimsbo, a Portland forensic scientist who runs a private lab.

"It's what they do with the results that gets them into trouble," said Grimsbo, attributing that to lack of experience or arrogance.

Pushing evidence too far is what some critics say happened when former Seattle crime lab manager Mike Grubb testified in a Vancouver, Wash., murder case.

Grubb told the court an earprint found at the scene in 1994 likely belonged to the accused, David Kunze. An expert from the Netherlands went further, testifying that the earprint was definitely left by Kunze's left ear.

The earprint evidence convinced a jury, who convicted Kunze in July 1997 of aggravated murder in the beating death of his ex-wife's fiancé. Kunze was sentenced to life in prison.

Two years later, the Court of Appeals overturned Kunze's conviction, criticizing the earprint testimony as "not generally accepted as reliable in the relevant scientific community."

"It was junk science," said John Henry Browne, Kunze's attorney. Kunze was set free in 2001 after a second trial ended in a mistrial.

It wasn't the first time an appeals court had taken issue with Grubb's conclusions. His testimony in a 1994 rape-murder trial, in which he claimed he could determine the age of semen found in the body of the teenage victim, was criticized as scientifically unsound.

Grubb stands behind his conclusions in both cases, saying he based his findings on years of experience and forensic studies.

"My testimony was well within the bounds of reasonableness," said Grubb, who left the lab in 1998 to run the San Diego Police Department crime lab.

Some critics believe a host of reforms are needed, including weeding out incompetent or dishonest crime lab employees, and requiring more rigorous outside reviews.

Washington's crime labs are inspected once every five years to retain voluntary accreditation. During the last review, in September 1999, all of the labs initially fell short of meeting key standards, records show.

Inspectors cited problems ranging from proficiency tests that weren't up to date to an unlocked evidence freezer. Those problems were soon corrected.

Said Logan: "They didn't come up with anything that they felt was a problem with the quality of the work."

Failing to meet voluntary standards, however, is a red flag because accreditation is done by former crime lab insiders who set the bar low, experts say.

"It's an old boys' network," said William C. Thompson, a criminology and law professor at the University of California-Irvine. "It's the absolute bare bones that's needed to run a lab. It isn't the best scientific work that can be done."

"The labs have manufactured credentials for themselves," said Blake, who won't accredit his California lab. "If you have people who are willing to manufacture credentials, what else are they making up?"

Unlike most critics, Frederick Whitehurst has been on the other side.

Whitehurst, an attorney and former FBI explosives expert, went public in 1995 about flaws in that lab.

He now heads the non-profit Forensic Justice Project.

While he favors requiring the nation's crime labs to undergo independent audits, he also remembers what it was like to have a two-year backlog of cases on his desk.

He hasn't forgotten the frustration of trying to do his best in the face of unrelenting demand.

"They can't go back and check. There's no time, there's no money," he said. "... And they will fall to the pressures."