Shoddy forensic science has led to a major setback in a murder investigation that could close the door on efforts to bring the killer to justice. The family of murder victim Suzanne Jovin was recently informed that the DNA evidence in her case was useless because it was contaminated by a lab technician. A DNA sample collected from under Jovin’s fingernails after her 1998 murder was found to match that of the lab worker that processed the evidence, not her killer as was previously assumed.
In recent years, forensic science has become a staple of criminal prosecutions. Jurors increasingly expect trials to include conclusive forensic evidence pointing to the guilt or innocence of a defendant. Although forensic testing has a reputation for producing accurate and objective evidence, it is not flawless. In fact, a lack of quality standards in forensics labs and of adequate training for technicians has resulted in potentially important evidence being rendered worthless or just plain wrong far too often. Moreover, since most states lack any type of meaningful oversight of its crime labs, mistakes continue to occur and problems remain uncorrected.
Many forensics labs around the country have taken important steps to ensure accurate forensic work, including seeking accreditation from organizations such as the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB). But the fact that problems still exist in accredited labs like the Connecticut State Department of Public Safety, the lab charged with processing evidence in the Suzanne Jovin case, shows that we must do more to ensure that effective forensic quality standards are being followed. As ASCLD/LAB itself acknowledges, accreditation is only part of a “laboratory’s quality assurance program”. Some states are beginning to recognize the need to augment private accreditation with more ongoing oversight and additional quality standards in order to ensure that our courts rely on the best forensic evidence possible.
The Justice Project’s policy review, Improving the Practice and Use of Forensic Science, outlines several steps states should take , including creation of an independent oversight commission to more closely supervise the work of forensic science laboratories. This commission would set statewide quality standards for all labs and would provide more rigorous, ongoing oversight of forensic testing to ensure that labs operate in a way that is consistent with the highest scientific standards. The commission would also adopt standards and regulations regarding the training and certification of all lab employees and safeguards against inadvertent bias in forensic analysis. These safeguards will help to ensure the objectivity and reliability of forensic testing and analysis.
Forensic science can be a powerful tool for seeking truth and justice. However, until our forensic oversight goes beyond accreditation, forensic evidence will continue to be mishandled, and jurors will be prevented from hearing reliable evidence. Good science leads to good justice, something in which we all have a vested interest.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system. To learn more about John and the work of The Justice Project, connect with TJP on Facebook or follow TJP on Twitter.