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.

John Terzano

John Terzano

John Terzano has been involved in social justice advocacy for more than twenty-five years. Terzano led a five-year campaign to pass the Innocence Protection Act (IPA), the first piece of federal death penalty reform legislation to pass Congress and be signed into law. The IPA allows for DNA testing of individuals who may have been wrongfully convicted and authorizes funding to states to clear their DNA backlogs and improve forensic laboratory capacity and standards across the nation as well as provide assistance to states to improve the quality of legal representation for indigent defendants in State capital cases among other reforms. As president of The Justice Project, John is instrumental in working to reform the criminal justice system through public education, litigation support and legislative reform efforts.

Terzano received his undergraduate degree in public affairs from the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University; graduated magna cum laude from the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC-DCSL); and received a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree in International Legal Studies from American University's Washington College of Law. Terzano is an Adjunct Professor of Law at UDC-DCSL, is a former Vice Chair of the American Bar Association's Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities Criminal Justice Committee and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Southern Center for Human Rights and Friends of the Law Library of Congress.