Science Thursday – February 13, 2014
The Boston Bar Association (BBA) Drug Lab Crisis Task Force released a report that praises the response to recent Massachusetts crime lab issues but warns that
significant reforms are still needed to prevent future problems
The BBA, a membership organization of about 10,000 attorneys in the Commonwealth, created a task force in 2012 to study how faking test results and tampering with samples occurred at a Department of Public Health crime lab. The report found that prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges have made great efforts to deal with more than 1,100 cases that were dismissed or not prosecuted because of tainted evidence. Additionally, the takeover of two different crime labs by the state police, implementation of various audits, and the decision to move toward accreditation were also noted as beneficial steps.
But, the task force found that the various steps fall short of preventing similar issues in the future, noting that such measures “have not fully addressed the larger issues we have identified,” according to task force Chair Michael Ricciuti.
One noteworthy recommendation from the BBA report
is that the Commonwealth should create an independent audit process and oversight structure to review the performance of drug labs and any other forensic services. Audits should permit confidential reporting of poorly performing co-workers as well as access to all internal and external complaints made in regards to forensic services. Such a process would augment the quality assurance system for crime labs in Massachusetts.
Another promising suggestion from the BBA is to improve the current Forensic Science Advisory Board (FSAB) to include a diversity of stakeholders. Currently, the FSAB is limited to various officials or their designees from organizations that are involved in investigating or prosecuting cases or management of personnel at crime labs. To ensure the FSAB respects a diversity of opinions, the BBA recommends that the composition of the FSAB be changed through legislation that would require more scientists and representatives from the defense bar.
The report from the BBA’s Drug Lab Crisis Task Force is an excellent resource for Massachusetts to consider as it works to improve the reliability of forensic evidence and increases its oversight. These recommendations come from a different set of stakeholders and can be easily implemented, resulting in steps that can hopefully prevent future widespread errors to occur.
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