Sunday, March 15, 2009

147 cases in police lab mess called 'tip of iceberg'

Detroit Fee Press
March 15, 2009 01:13 AM
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy says her office has identified 147 cases of convicted and imprisoned people that will require the retesting of evidence as part of the investigation into the now-closed Detroit police crime lab -- unveiling the first of potentially thousands of cases that are at risk of unraveling because of mishandled evidence."This is the tip of the iceberg," Worthy told the Free Press on Thursday, noting that in addition to the 147 cases identified by her office, defense attorneys have notified her office of 30 others that they believe relied on mishandled evidence.Those cases, and thousands of others, are taxing the Michigan State Police's capacity, which could translate into guilty people walking the streets, innocent people stuck behind bars and law-enforcement agencies hamstrung in fighting crime. Added to the caseload is the budgetary constraints under which the Prosecutor's Office and State Police must function."I really feel baffled at how many people might be in jail because of botched evidence, or how many people aren't in jail because of botched evidence," said LaDarrell Howard, 40, of Harrison Township, who was acquitted on a second-degree murder charge last spring after Detroit police wrongly included a bullet from an unrelated suicide with evidence in Howard's case.Defense attorney David Steingold, who tries murder cases in Wayne County, calls the crime lab problems scary."To a defense lawyer, the scientific evidence in court is the hardest evidence to contest in court, whether it's a blood test in a drunk driving case or a ballistic test in a murder case," he said. "You are at the mercy of a piece of paper."'This is a big public safety issue'Michael Thomas, director of the State Police's forensic science division, said he expects the state's labs to handle at least 20,000 Detroit cases this year.That's on top of the 10,000 cases a year the State Police lab handles of its own and about 650 other police departments, which makes for a six- to eight-month backlog.Added to the crush, at the State Police's crime lab in Sterling Heights -- which handles most of Detroit's cases -- some 3,000 firearms cases have piled up since April and await testing, Thomas said.Sgt. Stephen Nowicki, a specialist with the Sterling Heights lab, said that before the Detroit lab closed, his personal backlog was between 10 and 20 cases. Now, it's 100 cases and climbing.
About 600 cases have been shipped to some of the six other State Police labs across the state -- 100 apiece to labs in Grayling and Bridgeport last week alone -- in hopes of staying afloat, said Sarah Hough, a forensic technician at the Sterling Heights lab."This is a big public safety issue," Thomas said. "We may have evidence that would identify a rapist, but because I can't get to it, it's just sitting there."How many victims are exposed during that eight-month period while I don't have time to analyze that evidence?"How the problem startedThe case that broke the scandal and overwhelmed the labs involved Jarrhod Williams, 21, who withdrew two no-contest pleas last year stemming from a May 2007 double slaying in Detroit after faulty firearms evidence surfaced.Williams initially confessed and went to trial a year ago in the shooting deaths of Detroiters DeAngelo Savage, 33, and Tommy Haney, 38, when prosecutors offered to let him plead no contest to second-degree murder and serve 12 years in prison. But he insisted that his confession was coerced and that he was not responsible for the killings.A Detroit police report indicated all 42 spent shell casings at the scene came from the same gun. But Williams' attorney Marvin Barnett was skeptical of the evidence and hired former State Police firearms examiner David Balash to look things over. Balash discovered that the casings came from at least two weapons. State Police conducted its own tests and confirmed Balash's results.As a result, a new trial was granted in October. Worthy and former Detroit Police Chief Ella Bully-Cummings ordered an audit of Detroit's crime lab. The audit found, among other findings, an error rate of 10% in 200 firearms cases it reviewed.After the audit, Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. and Police Chief James Barren shut down the lab.Still, even with the bungled crime lab results, Williams' mother, Valarie Washington, remains skeptical."I hope the truth will come out," she said. "But my family doesn't trust the system. We believed in Mr. Barnett and all he's done, but the state has a way of always winning."Williams' new trial is expected to begin March 30.
Only one of manyAnother homicide case in question -- that against Edward Hill, who was sentenced to at least 50 years in prison about two years ago -- is being sent back to a circuit court judge, who could order a new trial.Hill's lawyer, Gerald M. Lorence, said a ballistics expert falsely testified that a bullet found in the victim came from a handgun seized from the home of one of Hill's relatives.Lorence said Hill's family is ecstatic that he may get a new trial. "It's true that someone was shot, but no one saw my client shoot anyone. Witnesses testified that he walked out of the store with a black gun, but the video shows it's a silver gun. I said, 'Wait a minute.' "Lab woes a nationwide problemThe Detroit lab wasn't the only one in the country with problems, according to the independent National Research Council. A review by West Virginia State Police found more than 100 convictions were in doubt because an employee had repeatedly falsified evidence. At least 10 people had convictions overturned.In Oregon, a man won a $2-million settlement after fingerprints mistakenly linked him to the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, Spain. Fingerprint evidence also was tossed out of a death penalty case in Maryland by a judge who declared it untested and unverifiable.Help on the way, but a ways offAmong the 20,000 cases are some that need DNA analysis. Of those, about 20% might be contracted out to independent labs, though there are only three such licensed labs in the country.And with Worthy's latest announcement that dozens of homicide cases need swift re-evaluation, Thomas said the state's labs are going to slip even further behind. Meanwhile, Worthy said her office is understaffed and doing the work "on a part-time basis on the county's dime."Worthy said her office has submitted a budget to Cockrel's office, which conservatively calls for $871,000 per year to take on such tasks.Worthy said more than 10% of the money budgeted for the investigation has already been spent.Meanwhile, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano is asking all departments to cut their spending by 20%.Last month, the state approved $5 million for the hiring of 45 forensic scientists to add to the State Police's current staff of 36 across seven labs.
That will help, Thomas said, but not for two years -- the average time it takes to train each scientist."We're working in an environment where the acceptable failure rate is zero," he said. "You can't make a mistake, so obviously, we have very rigorous training programs."To help with the backlog, Michigan State Police will continue to ship DNA testing to nationally accredited third-party labs, but those labs aren't able to help with the thousands of cases that involve other types of forensic testing, such as the firearms analysis that landed Detroit in trouble.The Detroit audit found that access to the firearms unit was unrestricted and evidence could have been contaminated because it was allowed to overflow into office and work areas.Washington, the mother of Williams, said the crime lab problems are terrifying."It makes you wonder how many other people might be going through the same thing and it makes you wonder how many times the police lied or got it wrong," she said. "I want my son home and I also hope that this is going to help some other people."

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