City crime lab director fired

Database update reveals employees' DNA tainted evidence, throwing lab's reliability into question

August 21, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz and Justin Fenton | Julie Bykowicz and Justin Fenton,Sun reporters

Baltimore crime analysts have been contaminating evidence with their own DNA - a revelation that led to the dismissal this week of the city Police Department's crime lab director and prompted questions yesterday from defense attorneys and forensic experts about the professionalism of the state's biggest and busiest crime lab.

Edgar Koch, who had been the city lab's director for the past decade, was fired Tuesday because of the DNA contamination and other "operational issues," said police spokesman Sterling Clifford.

He declined to elaborate on the other issues and said no one else was terminated.

City officials said the employee contamination did not lead to anyone being falsely accused of a crime, and they played down its importance.

But Baltimore's top public defender called the findings "atrocious" and Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said she has asked her senior staff to review the potential impact on open and closed cases.

By introducing their own DNA into crime evidence, lab employees may have created more work for detectives and made prosecutions harder, as the presence of unknown DNA can leave the impression of a phantom suspect, experts said.

Defense attorneys said any flaws in the city's handling of DNA could raise broader questions about evidence that is generally considered infallible. As testing becomes more sophisticated and new standards for labs emerge, cities across the country, including Houston and Seattle, have been discovering contamination issues that in some cases led to convictions being overturned.

"There are some concerns," Mayor Sheila Dixon said. "We don't have the details yet to know if these cases are in jeopardy, so I can't speak on that publicly yet."

The problem in Baltimore came to light when a new DNA supervisor in the lab, Rana Santos, began entering employee DNA samples into a database and comparing them against "unknown" genetic profiles found in evidence from crime scenes.

Santos' work has revealed about a dozen instances out of 2,500 in which a previously unknown genetic profile turned out to be that of a lab employee, Clifford said. The analysis is continuing, he said, with more employees' DNA being entered into the database and more unknown samples being re-examined.

Reached at home yesterday, Koch, a former Anne Arundel County police officer who developed the forensics lab there, said supervisors had mistakenly believed since 2005 that the lab staff's DNA samples had been entered into the database when they had in fact been sitting on a shelf.

He said he notified Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III when the oversight was discovered. He said Bealefeld was "not happy" and told him to resign late Tuesday.

"I was there 12 years and never had any issues," Koch said, adding that he was never informed of any other concerns with his job performance. "That's good personnel in there, and they should not be knocked for everything. I think [the criticism] is blown out of proportion."

Several experts, including the director of the national crime lab accreditation board, said they were surprised that Baltimore had failed to take what they called the basic step of cataloging the employees' DNA.

"It's a uniformly standard practice of laboratories doing DNA testing," said Ralph Keaton, director of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board. That board accredited Baltimore's lab in December 2006.

Keaton said that maintaining an employee database is not a requirement of accreditation but that not doing so is all but unheard of. After learning about Baltimore's contamination from reporters and a public defender yesterday, Keaton said he would call the Police Department to follow up but did not say whether the lab's accreditation could be at risk.

Two local agencies, the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore County Police, said they have always maintained DNA databases of laboratory employees who come into contact with the samples. Police spokesman Bill Toohey said that since Baltimore County began testing DNA in 2001, the first step in any analysis has always been to test samples against the staff profiles.

Clifford stressed that the contamination "didn't produce false positives," meaning that no suspects were inadvertently identified because of the lab's mistakes. He said the city crime lab and its DNA section were fully operational yesterday.

"Fewer than 15 known incidents of staff contamination over seven years isn't the kind of thing that holds up lab operations," Clifford said.

But Patrick Kent, chief of the forensics division at the state public defender's office, said police are "talking out of both sides of their mouth."

"They're saying, 'Oh, it's not a problem at all,' and on the other hand they have fired the crime lab director," Kent said. "And I can tell you that never happens. Crime lab directors are only fired when you have some serious quality control violations."

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