When Guy M. Vallaro takes over the as the director of the state forensics laboratory in Meriden later this month, it will mark the first time the facility commonly known as the “State Police Crime Lab” is not under State Police management.
The change may seem subtle, but it’s being viewed by many as significant. In 2009, an influential National Academy of Sciences study, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” endorsed the concept that government-funded forensic labs should no longer be supervised by law enforcement agencies.
Historically, state crime labs have been, or seemed to be, primarily the province of prosecutors and law enforcement officers. The perception of the Connecticut lab is no different, according to some members of the Connecticut defense bar.
After the legislature recently removed the lab from State Police oversight, the next step was to select a new director who would be a scientist first and foremost. Commissioner Reuben Bradford of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection first contacted Vallaro, who was in charge of a similar lab in Massachusetts, with an invitation to serve on the search committee that would help fill the lab director’s post.
Vallaro politely declined, on the grounds that he wanted to be considered as a candidate for the Connecticut job himself. His move paid off, and he was recommended to Bradford by an advisory committee of Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, Deputy Attorney General Nora Dannehy, Karen Goodrow, of Connecticut’s Innocence Project, and two academic experts.
Vallaro “quickly rose to the top” of the group of candidates, said Dannehy, who despite her background as a federal prosecutor, agrees that “the lab shouldn’t be looked at as working for the police. They’re working for the scientific result.”
Vallaro is taking over a facility that once had a lofty reputation but in recent years has been plagued by huge backlogs and criticism of its practices and protocols. The Meriden lab has 100 staffers and an annual budget of $7.4 million.
“The Connecticut lab is moving toward being more scientist-run and scientist-oriented organization, as labs around the country are,” said Vallaro. But that won’t solve all the lab’s problems, he noted. “There have been struggles throughout the nation with laboratories that were not being financially supported, which resulted in significant backlogs. This is not unique here. Across the country, there are many labs with significant backlogs, in DNA [testing] in particular.”
Vallaro has a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences and toxicology, and his work experience over the past 25 years has been in forensic lab management. Between 1998 and 2010, he supervised hundreds of lab employees at the UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, managing hospital and clinical laboratories. For six of those years, he was also chief of toxicology for the state Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Boston.
Since 2010, Vallaro has been director and chief science officer of the Massachusetts State Police lab, overseeing 220 employees who do the same types of forensic work that is performed in Connecticut’s lab. That includes DNA, ballistics, digital, drug and toxicology testing, as well as evidence analysis through the FBI-run CODIS system, a nationwide DNA data bank that states can access.
A year and a half ago, Connecticut’s lab temporarily lost its accreditation and its CODIS privileges due to bad marks from teams of auditors evaluating its procedures and protocols. The lab has also been beset with long backlogs in its processing of DNA and computer evidence. The bad reports were a deep embarrassment for the lab, which had once been in the national limelight, thanks to Dr. Henry Lee, its most famous director. Over a 30-year career, Lee took part in some of the nation’s most famous criminal trials, including the O.J. Simpson murder case.
Vallaro said he does not think of himself as following in Lee’s footsteps. “I’m my own person,” he said. “I hope to bring my own style and bring the lab back to national stature and recognition, by having the highest level of quality and reducing the backlog.”
Commissioner Bradford called Vallaro’s scientific credentials “excellent,” but says what set him apart is his administrative skills and successful experience as a forensics lab administrator.
“The other thing that impressed me,” said Bradford, is that “he’s got a doctorate in toxicology, and he’s a seasoned administrator of labs, but you can hold a conversation with him. He speaks and relates to people in a very personable way, which you don’t always find with an academic.”
Vallaro has personal experience with a crime lab in crisis. A lab technician at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health lab has been accused of altering test results in some 60,000 tests over an eight-year period. Last July, that lab was placed under the supervision of Vallaro’s lab, and Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is conducting a criminal investigation. “The impact is incredible,” Vallaro said. “It will cost the state of Massachusetts millions and millions of dollars.”
Could such crises spur states into providing greater funding for labs? “That’s not the way I want to get funded,” said Vallaro. “It’s a bad day when something like this happens. Often it ends up that there’s greater funding, but careers are ruined and reputations destroyed. It takes a long time for a laboratory to reestablish itself in the criminal justice system.”
‘Neutral, Unbiased System’
In Vallaro’s current role in Massachusetts, half of the people reporting to him are sworn law enforcement officers. He said he reports “up through the command structure of the Massachusetts state police. In Connecticut, it’s now separate.”
Does he hope the new structure will make the defense bar more comfortable in using the Meriden lab? “Absolutely,” said Vallaro. “I think that’s been achieved somewhat in Connecticut, based on my conversations. It should be that way. We’re part of the criminal justice system, a neutral, unbiased system open to the scrutiny of all.”
Vallaro will be reporting to Commissioner Bradford, who is a “civilian” with State Police credentials. After decades as a trooper, he worked as head of security for the National Football League for 15 years. He was appointed in 2010 to head the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which includes six agencies, including the State Police. The forensics lab’s current administrator is State Police Major William Podgorski.
When Vallaro takes the reins on Dec. 28, it will be the first time that the lab’s director doesn’t report to anyone in the State Police hierarchy. Given that history, it’s not surprising that much of the defense bar still sees the lab as having a prosecutorial aura.
“They treat it like it’s the state police and prosecution’s lab. I don’t see anybody going in there with defense cases,” said Monique Ferraro, a lawyer and a forensic scientist who previously worked at the Meriden lab.
Could that change with Vallaro, whose background is in science and not law enforcement? “I think that’s possible,” said Ferraro, the current owner of Technology Forensics LLC, a private lab in Waterbury that does a lot of business with defense lawyers. “He has a history of working for state police. I think he’s been very closely associated with them. I think time will tell.”
The one defense lawyer who served on the committee that recommended Vallaro is more optimistic. Karen Goodrow heads the Connecticut Innocence Project, whose work has led to overturning the convictions of three men who had been wrongfully imprisoned in Connecticut. “It was the state lab that did the work on our three DNA exonerations,” Goodrow noted.
She acknowledged, however, that there are strategic reasons why defense lawyers might not go to the state lab. If the defense has to attack the work of the lab that produced the prosecution’s incriminating evidence, she said, it would appear inconsistent to the jury if the defense next praised the same lab for its work on the defense’s exculpatory evidence.
Nevertheless, Goodrow said she considers the lab fair and unbiased, she’s pleased with the selection of Vallaro, and she predicts that, in the future, “I don’t think you will see one uniformed [officer] at the lab.”
As for Vallaro, despite the Connecticut lab’s recent problems, he chooses to look on the bright side. Thanks to hit television shows and technology, this is the golden age of forensic science. “It’s incredible,” he said. “There are significant advancements in digital evidence, cellphones, computers — digging deep into somebody’s electronic device, we can determine who they’ve been communicating with, what they’ve been looking at, what Google searches they’ve done.
“As far as DNA, I believe there will be a day not to far in the future where we could get results on a DNA profile within a day – or even within hours. The future is promising.”•