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Every night on TV portrayals of crime can be seen in everything from police dramas to news programmes and true-life crime documentaries.

Blurring the lines between fiction and reality, many crime dramas highlight the ability of forensic evidence, such as fingerprints and DNA, to provide evidence of innocence or guilt.

On global hit series NCIS, actor Pauley Perrette portrays forensic scientist Abby Sciuto, making her one of prime time’s most popular performers.

A few years ago, a headline declared, “Abby Sciuto Has Inspired a Whole Generation of Women to Dominate Forensic Science.” The Abby character is a forensics superstar. She achieved honours in college; triple majored in sociology, criminal science, and psychology; and also studied criminal science.

She is also fluent in sign language and is a skilled computer hacker.

If she existed, she might be the most overqualified forensic scientist in history.

Today, devotees of blood-spatter patterns and advanced DNA analysis have no shortage of programs to watch.

In addition to NCIS and its spin-offs, the series CSI, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Criminal Minds, Castle and Bones regularly showcase the triumph of lab work over the villainy of criminals.

Together, TV’s crime labs hammer home one message: the science of forensics has become so advanced that even the most diabolical criminals will inevitably be brought to justice.

If only their real-life counterparts were as effective.

Crisis unfolds in US crime labs
Crisis unfolds in US crime labs
Wikimedia

Even as TV viewers see their favourite investigators succeed every week, a crisis is unfolding in the US’s real crime labs, which are often held up as world leaders in cutting-edge science.

Inadequately screened personnel, poor training, lax oversight, under-funding and massive backlogs: the evidence of forensics’ sorry state has mounted.

In one outrageous example, an estimated 400,000 rape kits have been administered but remain untested in the US because of budgetary constraints.

Some kits are so old that even if a perpetrator is identified, prosecution is impossible because the period of time specified in the statute of limitations has elapsed.

And then there’s criminal activity, which has been the cause of many of the recent failures in labs across the US.

In the past two years alone: Investigators discovered that tampering with and theft of drug evidence – heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and OxyContin – was rampant in the Delaware state crime lab from 2010 to February 2014, throwing 200 pending prosecutions and thousands of convictions into doubt.

A Houston, Texas, police department inquiry revealed that a technician altered evidence and failed to follow proper procedures, so DNA samples in some 185 cases, including 51 murders, will be reanalysed.

An analyst at a Santa Clara County, California, lab used the wrong chemical to conduct methamphetamine tests.

The blood samples from 2500 arrestees had to be retested, and seven false positives were found.

A state crime lab chemist in Massachusetts, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for stealing drug evidence and tampering with samples to hide her theft.

A damning report found an incompetent New York technician, who mislabelled samples and overlooked and misplaced important DNA evidence in rape cases, was employed by her lab for more than nine years even though numerous superiors knew of her “myriad failures”.

But despite these disasters, the public’s faith in crime labs – due in part to Hollywood’s heroic portrayals – is greater than ever.

Jim Fisher, a former FBI agent and the author of Forensics Under Fire, and others call it the “CSI effect”.

He explains that the public has this idea about forensics from what it sees on TV that simply does not correspond with reality.

Even when practiced by well-trained technicians, forensics can be an inexact science.

And in the hands of unethical or sloppy analysts, forensics can be misused to catastrophic effect – bad lab work can undo criminal cases that required months of labour by police departments and district attorneys’ offices, place the innocent behind bars, and spring the guilty from prison.

To understand the havoc wreaked by the crime-lab crisis, here’s a look at two notable scandals in the US.

Drug evidence for sale
Drug evidence for sale
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Joseph Graves – Joey to his friends – was an important man in Florida law enforcement.

Since 2006, the well-respected Graves had handled evidence for some 2600 cases in 35 counties in his role as a supervisor at the state crime lab in Pensacola, and his analysis and testimony resulted in many convictions.

So colleagues of the 32-year-old were shocked by his arrest.

At the lab, Graves was in charge of testing suspected drugs and preparing certificates for criminal cases. But in January 2014, detectives went there to examine 147 OxyContin pills that were being held as evidence.

They found only 47 pills – and they were of an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. A

fter further discrepancies were uncovered, Graves was arrested on February 4, 2014, and charged with 22 felonies, including grand theft and drug trafficking, mostly of OxyContin and morphine. He’d allegedly been stealing narcotics with the intent to use and sell. He was freed after posting bail.

In May, based on an additional examination of his work, he was rearrested and charged with another 41 counts of trafficking illegal drugs. (He has pleaded not guilty.)

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) is now mired in an investigation of the thousands of cases that Graves handled.

Defence lawyers, arguing that their clients’ trials were compromised by his work, have been issuing appeals.

“Because of this breach, we have a lot of work to do to restore the confidence of our colleagues and of the Florida public,” said then FDLE commissioner Gerald Bailey at a news conference.

The “Fukushima of Forensics”
The “Fukushima of Forensics”
Wikimedia

In May 2013, Donta Hood, 22, was with friends in Brockton, Massachusetts, when he met up with Charles Evans, 45, and two pals.

Something went awry, the groups traded words, and Hood grabbed a gun from a companion and fired at Evans, hitting him in the chest and killing him.

That evening, Hood was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. (He has pleaded not guilty.) This was not Hood’s first offence. In 2009, he had been sentenced to five years in prison for dealing cocaine, but after serving a little over three, he was released.

Had a lab tech named Annie Dookhan not handled Hood’s 2009 case, he wouldn’t have been freed as early and Evans might still be alive. In 2003, Dookhan was hired as a chemist in a state crime lab in Boston, and in just a year, she was promoted because of her remarkable productivity. Her colleagues described her as a superwoman who could test more than five times the number of drug samples of a normal chemist.

But she was unmasked in June 2011, when an evidence officer discovered that 90 samples had vanished from the lab’s drug safe. The samples were traced to Dookhan, and she was suspended and resigned the following March. Under questioning by the police, she broke down and confessed how she’d achieved her output. Rather than running the required tests on drugs, she routinely identified them by eyeballing them.

To cover her tracks, if any of her samples were retested by other labs and found not to contain what she’d noted, she added the substance she’d originally “identified” and sent it back. When she did perform tests, sometimes she’d assemble samples of similar-looking drugs from different cases. She’d test a few of them, and if they came up positive, she’d label all the samples positive.

In November 2013, Dookhan pleaded guilty to 27 charges, including misleading investigators, filing false reports, and tampering with evidence, and was sentenced to three to five years in prison.

She was driven by the very human desire “to be recognised as a productive employee,” wrote Superior Court judge Carol S. Ball in her sentencing decision.

“[Dookhan is] a tragic and broken person who has been undone by her own ambition.”

Her actions have had huge consequences. In her nine-year career, she tested over 40,000 samples.

To date, more than 600 convicted felons – called “Dookhan defendants” by the press because the evidence that led to their jailing was handled by the tech – have been released or had convictions erased or set aside.

Of them, at least 83 have been rearrested, according to a Boston Globe investigation. Take Jamell T. Spurill.

He received a three-year jail sentence for drug crimes but was granted early release. When he ended up in cuffs again in September 2013 and police asked why, given his record, he wasn’t locked up, he reportedly said, “I just got out thanks to Annie Dookhan. I love that lady.”

“These people [released were] not first-time offenders or small-time drug dealers,” said Boston police sergeant James Machado.

“Unfortunately, innocent people will be killed.”

Not long after this prediction, Evans was shot by Hood.

“I’m surprised that [a murder] hasn’t occurred sooner,” Michael O’Keefe, then president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said at the time.

The Dookhan scandal might have been prevented if the lab had made a call to check her résumé before hiring her.

t’s thought that one third of forensic fraud is perpetrated by people who’ve lied about their credentials. Dookhan told the lab when she applied – and stated in court when she testified as an expert witness – that she had a master’s degree in chemistry.

But the closest she came was applying. A coworker discovered this in 2010, but instead of being disciplined, Dookhan removed the degree from her résumé – although soon afterwards she added it back on.

Why was Dookhan allowed to keep working despite being found out? Her speed. After years of watching shows like CSI, juries expect every allegation to be backed by strong evidence; they are reluctant to convict if it is lacking.

Prosecutors tend to overwhelm labs with evidence, Fisher notes, so labs end up rushing their testing at the expense of scientific rigour and accuracy.

Dookhan’s case has been dubbed the Fukushima of forensics – after the site of the 2011 Japanese nuclear meltdown – and, like Fukushima’s, its fallout continues.

So far, the state has spent more than $8.5 million to review her cases and to hold hearings. And while hundreds of the defendants that she’d once helped put away are now out on the streets, Dookhan is behind bars, serving out her sentence as Massachusetts Department of Corrections inmate F81328.

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