Hoping to show off an evidence room in the District of Columbia’s new forensic laboratory, Max Houck stepped up to a small black box near the door. A machine scanned his eyes. Access denied.
Houck, who came on as director of the city’s Department of Forensic Sciences this summer, explained during a tour in early September that the building was so new that his biometric data wasn’t fully in the system yet. The room, like most of the building, was empty, but he noted that the scanner did what it was supposed to do: keep evidence secure.
The city’s $220 million Consolidated Forensic Laboratory in Southwest Washington officially opens October 1, although it won’t be fully operational for another few months. From biometric scanners to training space where judges, lawyers and other guests can watch an autopsy in process, it’s a forensic scientist’s dream lab, Houck said.
It’s too soon to tell how the 287,000-square-foot lab might affect the use of forensic evidence in District of Columbia Superior Court cases. The forensic sciences department, created by the D.C. Council last year, will take over testing managed in the past by the Metropolitan Police Department and an assortment of federal law enforcement agencies. The lab will handle everything from ballistics and drugs to fingerprints and DNA. Besides the crime lab and public health lab, the new facility will house the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which will continue to manage the city’s morgue.
The lab’s independence from law enforcement is in line with a 2009 report on forensic science by the National Research Council of the National Academies, which recommended separation as a safeguard against bias, real or perceived, in test results. Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia School of Law, who testified last year in favor of an independent lab, said it “may be a model crime lab for the rest of the country. Most crime labs are not independent and do not have scientific oversight.”
The lab has received support from across the criminal justice system. Still, lawyers say they’ll be watching how officials handle oversight, especially the appointment of a forensic science advisory board required by the council to advise on best practices. Houck said he is compiling a list of possible members for approval by Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander Jr. Defense lawyers have called for strong scientific oversight, while the U.S. attorney’s office has questioned why the board is needed, warning it could add unnecessary bureaucracy.
Houck, a former FBI forensic scientist who led the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University, said he’s excited to build a forensic sciences department from the ground up. “As a scientist, I start geeking out about it,” he said.
The city is launching the lab in the midst of a national debate over improving the quality of forensic science and how forensic evidence should be used.
Several months before D.C. officials broke ground in late 2009, the National Research Council released its congressionally mandated report on the state of forensic sciences. The report identified a host of problems with how forensic labs were being run and called into question the reliability of several forensic methods. Congress is now considering legislation to create national standards, and city officials cited the report as a major factor in considering how to manage the new lab.
The report’s top recommendations included making forensic labs independent of law enforcement. The District hasn’t faced evidence-related scandals on the same scale as some states — Massachusetts, for instance, is coping with allegations of drug evidence tampering that could affect thousands of cases — but Holland & Knight partner Steven Gordon said it’s still the right move.
“It’s a sounder system to have the forensics be independent so…they’re not subject to pressure that may sometimes exist to shade the results in a particular case,” said Gordon, who testified in favor of independence last year on behalf of local nonprofit Council for Court Excellence. “I’m not suggesting that there has been any particular problem there, but that is inherent in the nature of the beast and in human nature.”
Houck said that the lab’s independence was “a huge step forward.” An added bonus is that the department can apply for grants outside those given to police departments, he said. Peter Neufeld, co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, said Houck is considered a leader in efforts to improve the forensic sciences. “He’s been a very important player,” he said.
Michael Ambrosino, special counsel for DNA and forensic evidence litigation in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, disputed that law enforcement management of forensic testing led to bias. Still, he said that his office expects the new lab — and the city’s focus on supporting forensic science — to lead to faster turnaround in evidence testing. “It’s an exciting time for the District,” he said.
The lab is widely expected to improve the efficiency of forensic testing, and lawyers say it could change how evidence plays out in court in several ways. For example, the lab’s independence may make it tougher to convince judges that a second expert opinion is needed, said Richard Gilbert, legislative committee chairman of the D.C. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. At the same time, he said, the availability of more evidence information will mean fewer disputes over what should be turned over to the defense.
Deputy Attorney General Andrew Fois said he’s looking forward to the “dramatic improvement” in evidence control. “We think things are going to be faster, more efficient, less subject to challenge in court,” he said.
Garrett said that there hasn’t been as much movement toward reform as advocates wanted following the 2009 report. He praised the District’s progress, but said it would be hard for the city to single-handedly fix the problems identified in the 2009 report without national standards for the forensic sciences and more research funding.
The lab is built with the future in mind, Houck said. The size of work stations and office space can be adjusted thanks to movable walls, and the facility has more storage space than is needed now in anticipation of growth, especially in DNA and computer analysis. He said he envisions the lab as a national hub for training and research. “It’s set up for everyone in the criminal justice system with a stake in science,” he said.
Contact Zoe Tillman at email@example.com.