Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mounting errors at military crime lab

Since Grits has focused quite a bit on forensic errors and problems at Texas crime labs, I thought I'd mention that similar problem have surfaced at the main military crime lab, which has a tangential home-state angle because of all the military bases here. From McClatchy newspapers, the story opens:
The military's premier crime lab has botched more evidence testing than was previously known, raising broader questions about the quality of the forensic work relied on to convict soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

Now, two senators want the Pentagon to open a full investigation. If they start looking, Pentagon officials will find that the crime lab's problems extend beyond one discredited analyst.

The scrutiny comes after McClatchy published a series of stories detailing how a former longtime forensics analyst at the Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory made false statements and mishandled dozens of tests.

A follow-up McClatchy investigation reveals that a second lab analyst, responsible for firearms, was fired for making a false statement and destroying evidence. The lab subsequently had to review 541 firearms cases to make sure they were thorough, properly conducted and met legal requirements. Ultimately, officials determined that none of them needed full retesting.

More recently, a third lab analyst, who handles fingerprints, was found to have erred in at least three cases, one involving murder.

But the previously undisclosed problems go beyond discredited or flawed individual analysts. Some lab employees "do not like . . . (the) leadership style" of a top lab manager, an Army official said in a court deposition in March. Six discrimination or retaliation complaints have been filed against lab management in the past three years. One was filed by the lab's former chief attorney, who had helped oversee previous internal investigations into the lab's mistakes.

"The problem is not with just one person, but systemic," said David Sheldon, an attorney for a former Navy man who is challenging the lab's work in an appeal to the Supreme Court. "It's as if (the lab) has had no oversight, and one has to seriously question whether or not it can effectively police itself."

The Atlanta-based lab, commonly known as USACIL, serves all the military branches, handling evidence in more than 3,000 cases a year. The director, Larry Chelko, has been in charge since 1993.


Audrey said...

Frightening really. We count on forensic evidence to absolutely prove innocence or guilt. But still the integrity of the system is compromised by the human agendas and sloppy work. It smells like corruption at all levels of the justice system. An innocent person hasn't a chance.

Anonymous said...

What is more scary, UCMJ is far less forgiving than Constitutional law. The sentences are cut and dried, with limited scope or redress for appeal.

Brandon W. Barnett said...

Anon 0121: While I agree that the mountain of labs errors are scary indeed, the military has a much better system for redress on appeal (e.g. they allow de novo review for factual sufficiency) and the military judges at the trial level are much more inclined to suppress evidence of a questionable nature than are civilian trial judges. Regardless of what some may think, under the UCMJ, the military accused is in a better position than a civilian accused when it comes to receiving his constitutional rights.

Audrey said...

I guess things have changed in the military since the days of Mary Surratt.

Brandon W. Barnett said...

Yes they have, but that was a military tribunal anyway, not a UCMJ court. The UCMJ was even enacted until 1950.

California Lemon Law said...

Another example of the systemic failure of the military judiaciary. Very seldom have I seen a military person accept responsibility for error. An occurence of this magnitude in the civil court system would result in the termination and possible prosecution of all involved. Instead we see a cover-up in true Nixonian style that took three years to reach the ears of those effected.
California Lemon Law