Hundreds of Bexar County driving-while-intoxicated cases now are under scrutiny after a forensic lab contracted by the county fired an analyst accused of turning in sloppy paperwork on several occasions — including once when she recorded names incorrectly on 350 blood samples.
Integrated Forensic Laboratories LLC in Bedford fired the employee, analyst Cherrie Lemon, on May 16 upon determining that she “misplaced, lost or destroyed another analyst's worksheet,” according to a letter the lab director sent to the Bexar County district attorney's office.
Multiple phone calls to IFL's lab director, Dr. Nate Stevens, and several others in the lab's parent company weren't returned Thursday.
Stevens' email states that IFL is conducting an audit to determine which, and how many, DWI cases were affected by the fumbled documentation. The investigation should be complete by May 30, he said.
“We have no indication that there's anything wrong with the test results, it's just that she can't testify,” First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg said. “But I imagine there will be quite a few requests for retesting.”This is the sort of large-scale situation for which the state needs to establish firmer protocols, particularly for identification and representation of already-convicted defendants whose cases may have been tainted by forensic error. IFL is a DPS accredited crime lab so it falls under the Texas Forensic Science Commission's purview and the incident has already been reported to the commission by the lab, the Express-News reported. IFL has also got a brand-new general manager, I discovered via a web search, who's got quite a job in front of her reacting to this mess.
He said there are “several hundred” cases that could be eligible for retesting, which takes a couple of weeks. Because many of the cases still are awaiting trial, Herberg said he doesn't expect any retesting to cause significant court delays.
Last summer, Lemon was scolded for a separate incident in which she recorded the wrong names on 350 blood alcohol cases, Herberg said, adding it remains undetermined how many of those cases originated locally. ...
But local defense attorneys are more dubious of IFL's work, and have correspondence detailing additional mix-ups involving Lemon and others. One letter from last August states that while correcting one issue, Lemon found that “many packages” of blood tubes had not been properly sealed before they were refrigerated; in another instance, lab employees left a bottle of acetone in a preparation room that may have contaminated blood samples.
“People do make mistakes, but at this point, it seems a little bit more systemic,” said Robert Featherston, president of the San Antonio Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “Nobody wants to see anybody convicted on contaminated evidence, and everybody's real interested in getting this stuff retested, if we can figure out whose blood is whose.”
Via Paul Kennedy, who has some choice words regarding notification issues in particular. He argued:
Now not to be too persnickety here, but letting the state and its agents decide when defense counsel should and shouldn't be notified of potential evidential issues is a bit like letting the fox guard the hen house. The question isn't whether an audit revealed "issues" with any of the tests, the question is whether or not the revelations cast doubt upon the reliability of the test results.
The rule going forward should be that should any issues arise at a crime lab (or contracted lab), both the court and defense counsel should be notified. The court should then determine whether the problem is serious enough to compromise a test result (or to present the appearance that a test has been compromised).
For anyone who still harbors illusions that our modern day crime labs are as sophisticated and well-run as the labs on CSI and other forensic science procedurals, let this be a wake-up call. The purpose of a crime lab isn't to discover the truth - it is to produce useful evidence for the prosecution. This mission creates a culture where problems are to be swept under the rug lest those pesky defense attorneys find out what's going on behind closed doors. It's only when there are clear cases of misconduct that any of us find out just what happened.That last observation in particular is right on the money. And it's one of the reasons I think the Forensic Science Commission has been valuable. The fact that problems must be reported to them and are publicly vetted greatly increases transparency, has produced numerous fruitful recommendations and outcomes, and has fostered a useful public forum for deliberation among stakeholders surrounding these topics, which is all it was ever really empowered to do. When they meet again in August, I'd expect the FSC to vote to investigate Bexar County case, based on their prior patterns. Seems right up their alley.