Thursday, April 12, 2012

Probing probes by ASCLD/LAB: Conference calls substitute for investigation

Grits has discussed recently whether "accreditation" of crime labs provides meaningful oversight, citing an appeal last year to the New York Forensic Science Commission urging them to stop using ASCLD/LAB, which is also the main body that accredits crime labs in Texas. Attorney Paul Kennedy at The Defense Rests provides an example of ASCLD/LAB's oversight in the case of the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas after allegations that "the lab has been using chemicals after the expiration dates on the bottles, that the lab is using outdated protocols and that analysts have been conducting tests without wearing gloves (among others)."

Their investigation method: They initiated two conference calls with lab management and issued a report parroting their responses as findings without even contacting the complainant. Writes Kennedy:
ASLD took over 13 months to complete their "investigation." Their investigation consisted of telephone interviews with managers at SWIFS (Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences) in Dallas. Not once did anyone from ASLD contact the individual who made the complaint.

After ASLD's report was issued, it took the Texas Forensic Sciences Commission another 13 months to forward the findings to the individual who made the complaint. As a result of the "investigation" by the body who had accredited the lab two years prior to the complaint, the TFSC found the complaint to be groundless.
Not much of an inquiry if they never spoke to the complainant nor verified verbal responses from the lab. Then the Forensic Science Commission (belatedly) relied on the ASCLD/LAB findings - which really represented barely any investigation at all - to dismiss the complaint. (See the report [pdf].) Not encouraging, huh?

To be fair, the delay under the forensic commission occurred under John Bradley's chairmanship while the group was distracted, divided, and embroiled in the Todd Willingham arson controversy. And despite the poor quality of the Dallas investigation, Grits can't say for certain a more thorough one would have found anything. But this episode demonstrates why mere accreditation - or the say so of ASCLD/LAB - isn't necessarily sufficient to conclude a crime-lab complaint was unfounded. And if that's the case, what good are they?

MORE: The Forensic Science Commission's investigative panel on the El Paso crime lab meets tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. in Austin, for the early birds among you. See the agenda (pdf), as well as the one (pdf) for their regular meeting at 9:30. ASCLD/LAB took El Paso off probation, readers may recall, before all its problems had been addressed.

See related, recent Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

What is not noted in either this posting or the source posting, but which is made clear in the ASCLD/LAB investigation report, is that there had been a week-long onsite visit to the laboratory by an ASCLD/LAB audit inspection team immediately prior to the start of employment of the individual who filed the complaint. At that time the audit team made observations of processes and procedures directly relevant to the issues raised in the complaint, and these observations did not support the allegations complaint. Those onsite observations were utilized in the complaint review.

The ASCLD/LAB report casts significant doubt upon the creditability of the individual making the complaint, noting that the he "…appears to be subverting [the laboratory's] quality assurance process...", and that the complaint "...very likely arose out a desire for retaliation against SWIFS."

It is noteworthy that the individual who made the complaint never provided the Commission with a single case that could actually be investigated for errors - this after working in the lab for more than a year, and having the opportunity to observe many cases being processed. A reasonable person would think, given the length of time the complainant was in the laboratory and a system as broken as the complainant claims, that it would be fairly easy to point to a large number of cases where the results reported out by the lab were incorrect, or at the very least suspect. The complainant was clearly motivated to identify such cases and to provide this information to the Commission, since his allegations would have been greatly strengthened by being able to point to specific cases in which errors may have been made. However, he did not do this, even after repeated communications with the Commission.

That single fact should give pause. It is simply not the way that a credible person does things.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Perhaps, 9:20, but it's hard to imagine a thorough investigation that doesn't involve contacting the complainant, much less drawing conclusions about his or her motives without bothering to ask directly what they were! It's one thing for anonymous blog commenters to do that (common, even), but somehow I expect more from scientists.

Also, the fact that ASCLD/LAB did an inspection when accreditation was renewed means little, any more than the fact that in El Paso ASCLD/LAB took the crime lab off probation without the problems having been fixed. Don't take my word for it, though. Let Marvin Schecter tell you (pdf) how much (or little) their oversight is worth.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:12-

You assume that the FSC contacted the complainant asking for such info. Do you know that they did?

And would you expect ASCLD/LAB to admit that their week-long audit failed to detect what was stated in the anonymous complaint? (Expired chemicals would be difficult to miss, if I recall from GFB’s posted pictures.)

Remember, ASCLD/LAB gets PAID by the crime lab (to look the other direction).

Also, identifying a criminal case that might be affected by poor scientific practice is not a requirement for submitting a complaint to the FSC (just look at the FSC complaint form). If all the analysts in the lab are practicing bad science, then ALL criminal cases are affected. (How many Texas arson cases are being re-investigated because of the findings from the Willingham case?)

Plus, according to the Attorney General’s Opinion GA-0866 the FSC cannot investigate misconduct involving evidence tested or offered into evidence before September 1, 2005. However, the FSC may investigate allegations arising from “incidents” that occurred prior to September 1, 2005. (quote marks included.)

Analysts using expired chemicals for numerous years fits the definition of “incidents”.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:20-

The following statements come directly from the August 2009 response Report from SWIFS regarding the allegations sent to the TFCS:

“…The trainee correctly notes that in the protocol for performing microscopic examination of sexual assault kit smears, the category for estimating the approximate number of spermatozoa on smears does not include the range of 8-14 spermatozoa…In the revised protocol (effective 2/13/2009) the category now covers the ranges of 1-10 (Rare) and 11-20 (Occasional)…”

“…The Trainee is correct that the practice of the laboratory regarding storage of swabs from autopsy sexual assault kits differs from the guidance given in the manual…The manual was subsequently revised to reflect this practice in February 2009 as part of a broader revision of the manual…”

“…The Serology Procedures Manual specifies that condoms should be stored in a freezer until analysis…The Institute is in agreement with the Trainee that the manual requires updating to reflect the practices of the laboratory…”

“…The Trainee is of the opinion that a statement in one of the serology protocols that describes the placement of an “Item Stored” label on the packaging of evidence items that have been stored does not reflect current practice…The Committee agreed that the practice of placing an item stored sticker was not current and that the manual needed to be revised to remove this…”

“…The Institute agrees with the Trainee that certain retired procedures can be removed from the Serology Procedures Manual…”

Why did he accreditation agency ASCLD/LAB NOT discover these violations during their week-long audits?

Anon 9:20, it's quite difficult to argue a "creditability" issue when the lab agrees with the complainant.

And Did the Dallas County DA's Office look into these allegations?

(Anon 12:06, I assume were you addressing 9:20...)

Anonymous said...


9:20 here-

The complainant in this instance did not just dash off a quick note to the Commission saying, here's something that might be a problem. Commission received a 40-odd page complaint document, which was followed up with numerous email communications, which was followed up with a supporting Powerpoint presentation of several hundred pages.

So the Commission itself had voluminous interactions with the complainant. So it's a hard sell to say the Commission's process lacked sufficient information about the complainant's concerns.

The Commission had the decision making responsibility in this process. ASCLD/LAB's role was more limited than the Commission's. ASCLD/LAB was asked by the Commission to do certain things to assist the Commission in it's evaluation. It was really the Commission's task to go back to the complainant if additional information was needed to make an evaluation. My understanding is that the Commission forwarded the ASCLD/LAB report to the complainant for feedback, and he provided a written response to the Commission. That would seem to satisfy the objection that the complainant was not consulted.

It is also noteworthy that the complainant never showed up a Commission meeting to actually talk to the Commission. All of the Commission's meetings are public. The Commission members would have been happy to hear from the complainant in person. But apparently talking to the Commission members was either not important to the complainant, or something that he wanted to avoid for some reason.

Again, this is clearly not the way that a credible person acts.

Anonymous said...

9:20, You are incorrect yet again. The PowerPoint came from a second complainant with more examples of scientific misconduct (incorrect chemicals being used, several other expired chemicals being used including a chemical that was purchased in 1995, horrifically dirty laboratory contaminated with blood and semen).

If you are stating that all complainants, as a requirement, must attend open meetings to get their three minutes to argue their complaints, please cite that in the TCCP 38.01 for us.

Also, if you have the communications between the complainants and the FSC, post them for all to see. Exactly what kind of questions did the FSC ask of the complainants? Demonstrate that you have some sort of "investigative" credibility instead of campaigning for a limp organization.

sunray's wench said...

"Lege raid on victim compensation funds leaves it drying up."

So the new TDCJ phone system isn't making a profit yet then? Because the first $2million if I remember correctly from that enterprise was supposed to go directly into the Victim Compensation Fund.

Perhaps NOW they will consider increasing the minutes allowance and letting inmates call family overseas. I'm more than willing to pay my share, regardless of where it ends up.

sunray's wench said...

Dammit, new blogger layout made me post the above comment in the wrong place!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:32/9:20, you're assuming so many facts not in evidence, it's both impossible and fruitless to debate you. As 10:17 says, if you have evidence the complainant was contacted by ASCLD/LAB, please present it.

I don't doubt the FSC did, but that's not the accrediting body. In fact, that's why I've said ASCLD/LAB's shortcomings in many ways provide the FSC with a raisson d'etre - their work has been quite thorough when they're doing the investigating compared to this particular example by ASCLD/LAB.

Anonymous said...


9:20 here.

My comments are based on looking at the hundreds (literally) of related documents posted online, mostly by the complainant and some by Texas Watchdog. The documents posted by the complainant include the back-and-forth emails he had with the Commission

I understand that your view is that ASCLD/LAB's process was inadequate because the complainant wasn't interviewed. However, the Commission screens most of the complaints it receives without having a verbal conversation with the complainant. So interviews are not a de facto requirement for a satisfactory process. In some situations it may be necessary if the substance of the complaint is unclear. But in some instances, there may be sufficient documentation of the substance of the complaint that an interview is not necessary. This is clearly a judgement call, and people may reasonably differ in their judgements.

In this particular instance, there was a wealth of detail in the approximately 40 page written complaint submitted to the Commission, and passed on to ASCLD/LAB for their review. Both organizations performed a screening of the complaint to determine if there was justification for a full-fledged investigation. Both organizations determined on the basis of the screening that a full investigation was not warranted. DPS - the state organization responsible for crime lab accreditation - also received this complaint and did not initiate an investigation. So three organizations with investigatory powers reviewed the complaint and judged it to not be of sufficient merit to warrant an investigation.

I understand that you see there to be deficiencies ASCLD/LAB that need correcting. For all I know there may be. I don't know of any complex process that is perfect. But it seems like a stretch to say that the handling of this complaint is an illustration of those deficiencies.