They blinded me with science
Well, you can say this much for the gang at the St. Paul crime lab: they weren't corrupt. They were just breathtakingly incompetent.
An assistant public defender was one of the first to discover that. She was representing a defendant charged with possessing drugs, and being willing to go the extra mile, set up a meeting with the analyst who'd tested the drugs. She found that the lab was run by a police sergeant without any scientific background, instruments weren't cleaned between testing, and the "analysts" often used Wikipedia as a technical reference.
Her complaints led to the hiring of two independent consultants, who found a plethora of problems:
- A majority of the case files had errors, ranging from typos to the misidentification of controlled substances
- Not even basic maintenance was performed on the drug testing equipment
- The supervisor of the fingerprint unit lacked certification, and hadn't attending any training in more than a decade
- Photos of the crime scene unit were stored on a computer with no password and no backup system; files could be accessed and edited or deleted by anyone
But that pales in comparison to what happened in the Boston crime lab. One analyst, Annie Dookhan, was sentenced to 3 to 5 years in prison after pleading guilty to faking test results - she admitted to having identified drug samples by looking at them instead of testing them - forging co-worker's signatures on lab reports, and contaminating drug samples, calling into question the validity of no fewer than 34,000 cases. And then there's another analyst, Sonja Farak, who told investigators that she smoked crack every day at work, and also used meth, Ecstasy, and LSD. And not just in the lab; she confessed to having hit the pipe during the lunch break before her testimony in a criminal trial.
That brings up the question which so puzzled the ancient philosophers: Which is worse, the coked-up analyst, or a perfectly sober analyst intent on helping out the state? North Carolina encountered the latter problem in 2010. Two retired FBI agents were assigned to investigate the State Bureau of investigation crime lab, and found that "SBI agents withheld exculpatory evidence or distorted evidence in more than 230 cases over a 16-year period."
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation finally ended last year after 15 seasons. Remember when that was A Thing in criminal law, with prosecutors identifying a new phenomenon, the CSI effect, in which jurors would demand that the government provide somebody to testify about mitochondrial DNA in a crackpipe case? That generated so much buzz that the Ohio State Bar Association proposed a jury instruction which would remind the jurors that what they see on TV is not real life. I don't know what happened to it, and I'm too lazy to look it up, but it becomes hysterically ironic in light of the fact that one of the two major political parties will nominate a man for the position of leader of the Free World who first became a national celebrity because of a reality TV show.
But I digress...
As I explained at the time, the "CSI effect" theory was BS. A lot of it relied on the recollection of prosecutors, and that didn't always work out; in one study,
the author quizzed assistant district attorneys at a seminar about whether they'd suffered a "CSI effect" -- a jury "wrongfully acquitting" where there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but lack of forensic evidence -- and asking them to identify the case. He'd intended to then go back and research the individual cases for an alternate explanation. A problem: 19 of the 20 cases identified by prosecutors had resulted in a conviction.
And studies have detected no measurable difference in acquittal rates in CSI watchers v. nonwatchers. On the other hand, you could make a pretty good argument that any "CSI Effect" benefits the prosecution: the infallibility of science is the very theme of the show. Remember the episode where Nick Stokes boosted the weight of some drugs to make it the next highest felony? Or the one where Gil and Willows dummied up a DNA analysis? Neither does anybody else.
Under RC 2925.51, the prosecutor can provide you with a lab report of the drug analysis. If it's accompanied by a copy of a notarized statement attesting to the tester's methods and training, you have seven days to demand the testimony of the analyst. If you don't, the report can be submitted as prima facie proof of the contents, identity, and weight of the substance.
You can take it back later, and there may be reasons you should. Sometimes, there's nothing to attack. Sometimes, it makes it worse if you attack; having a personable, articulate analyst explaining how he came to determine that your client possessed over 100 grams of crack isn't helpful. Sometimes, it will be helpful: having an analyst explain what cocaine residue is, and how much it is (or isn't), can be beneficial if you're on a jury nullification kick.
Five years ago in Bullcoming v. New Mexico, the Supreme Court held that the state couldn't present a forensic report as evidence unless the person who performed the test testified at trial. A critical fact in the case - the decision was 5-4 - was that the analyst who did perform the test had been suspended from his position, which might have presented fertile ground for cross-examination on whether his suspension had something to do with his job performance.
So always object. You never know who's going to call in sick, or get canned.