In West Virginia, criminalist Fred Zain showed just how much damage a compromised police forensics laboratory can cause. In the 1970s, Zain, a gun-toting West Virginia State Police officer, was assigned to the state crime laboratory as a serologist. He entered the job with minimal training, a corner-cutting attitude and a pro-prosecution bias. If the evidence appeared weak against a defendant whom Zain considered a sleazeball, the criminalist made the evidence look stronger by exaggerating or falsifying test results.
For many years, prosecutors did not publicly question Zain's competence or honesty; after all, he told them what they wanted to hear. Many defense lawyers, jurors and judges lacked the scientific knowledge to question Zain's results. As for Zain's laboratory colleagues, some maintained ignorance, while others suspected wrongdoing but feared the consequences of whistleblowing. ...
By 1993, the extent of the damage done by Zain had become so evident that a prosecutor petitioned the Supreme Court of West Virginia, requesting an investigation. The justices appointed James O. Holliday, a retired judge, to lead the inquiry.
Holliday filed a report that had to horrify anybody who believed in the integrity of the justice system. At least 134 cases relying in significant part on Zain's findings needed re-examination. In the end, Zain's misconduct led directly to the release of five West Virginia inmates and one inmate in Texas. (Zain had moved to Texas in 1989 where he worked in the Bexar County crime laboratory, [emphasis added] which serves greater San Antonio.)
Criminalists traveling from outside West Virginia to conduct a scientific inquiry for Holliday determined that Zain was guilty, among other misconduct, of:
- Reporting "scientifically impossible or improbable results"
- Stating that "multiple items had been tested when only a single item had been tested"
- Offering "inconclusive results as conclusive"
- Failing to report conflicting results
- "Implying a match with a suspect when testing supported only a match with the victim"
- "Repeatedly altering laboratory records"
Holliday concluded that evidence offered by Zain "at any time in any criminal prosecution should be deemed invalid, unreliable and inadmissible."
Thursday, June 18, 2009
"Keystone Kops at the Crime Lab"
The title of this post is the headline from an excellent piece in Miller-McCune about problems at forensic crime labs, in which naturally the Houston crime lab figures prominently. But they also mentioned another Texas connection: