Unusual suspects in crime lab caper

Our view: Slip-up with DNA samples at Baltimore crime lab warrants independent review

August 24, 2008

A BIG-CITY CRIME LAB DISCOVERS EVIDENCE IN ITS CUSTODY has been tainted by DNA from its own technicians. CSI script writers couldn't have crafted a more authentic plot -- it's playing out right now at the Baltimore Police Department. Call this episode: Sloppy Police Work.

City crime lab director Edgar Koch got the ax last week because of the mix-up, which was discovered by a lab supervisor who was new to the job. She saw what others missed - DNA samples taken from lab analysts, a standard practice to check for contamination, hadn't been logged into the DNA database. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III should use this opportunity to bring in an independent consultant to review this and past issues that have been raised about crime lab procedures.

Self-contamination is important because unknown DNA found on a piece of cloth, a glass or carpet would suggest more than one suspect in a crime. Of 2,500 unidentified DNA samples reviewed by police, 12 were found to be staff profiles, and police say no one has been falsely accused of a crime because of the mix-up.

But local defense lawyers have already seized on the mistake to try and discredit lab-analyzed evidence that is critical to crime-solving and convictions. Commissioner Bealefeld may feel he has resolved this issue by firing Mr. Koch, who says a former lab worker was the real culprit for failing to file the samples. But the commissioner would be doing a new crime lab chief a favor by hiring an independent expert to audit the lab. Any credible candidate should insist on it.

Forensic evidence such as DNA can be a powerful tool in solving crimes, but not if it too is suspect.

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