Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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It’s performance oversight hearing season in D.C., and yesterday Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen kicked off the first such review within the Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety he chairs. In a two-hour meeting rife with disappointed sighs from Allen and awkward silences and information gaps from Interim Director of the Department of Forensic Sciences Anthony Crispino, Allen was “shocked” to learn the agency has no concrete solution in place to get its regular crime lab operations running more than nine months after the lab lost its accreditation

Hold Your Evidence

With DFS unable to fulfill most of its forensic testing and data-sharing functions without proper accreditation, evidence in D.C. crimes has gone largely unused. Evidence is also stalled at the Forensic Chemistry Unit, as a paperwork issue delayed its plan to outsource its processing. The lab’s Digital Evidence Unit and Forensic Chemistry Unit haven’t processed any evidence since pre-accreditation times and aren’t sending samples to outside labs, Crispino said. 

“This seems reckless,” Allen said. “How do we not have either a contracted ability to do this … and we’re not outsourcing it somewhere? How’s that not reckless?”

The Digital Evidence Unit typically processes evidence such as phones, laptops, and devices in cars. (In his testimony later that day, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart said there had been no impact to processing digital evidence; MPD can rely on the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives task forces for these purposes, he said.)

Meanwhile, the amount of DNA evidence from D.C. cases uploaded to a national database, CODIS—key to linking crimes and identifying unknown offenders—has plummeted, according to data Crispino cited. The process for identifying DNA that’s eligible for CODIS upload has multiple steps, Crispino explained: After the DNA sample is brought in from a crime scene, forensic scientists analyze the sample, assess whether the sample is large enough and good enough quality for CODIS, and upload eligible samples to the database. Yet only 7 percent of eligible DNA samples since April are being processed: Of the 429 eligible DNA samples identified since DFS lost its accreditation, 51 were outsourced to third-party forensic labs in Connecticut and Wyoming, according to Crispino. Of those, only 33 are being processed, as there’s “an issue” with the Connecticut lab, he said. By contrast, DFS uploaded 750 DNA samples into the database in fiscal year 2020 and 652 in fiscal year 2019, WTOP reports

Crispino said triaging DNA profiles to prioritize sexual violence crimes and homicides for upload happened before the DFS faced delays related to its accreditation loss. Statutes of limitations mean rape kits must get processed within a certain time period, and are critical for identifying and holding perpetrators accountable, as they are in other violent crimes. But, pressed by Allen, Crispino admitted the lab’s bandwidth is much lower than it would have otherwise been; the Wyoming lab can take only so many samples. 

Build Back Trust

Allen shook his head as Crispino acknowledged that he didn’t have a set date for DFS to meet with the Science Advisory Board or Stakeholder Council. Addressing both groups with concrete steps DFS is taking toward accountability and systemic improvements is key to regaining trust in the lab and ultimately restoring operations. 

“We have … dramatically less capacity to do the job than we did previously,” Allen told Crispino. “When you hear me getting upset about the fact that we can’t get a stakeholders council to be meeting, or the SAB, in any urgency—all of this has a direct link to public safety.”

DFS hasn’t had the best track record. In April, the national forensic body ANSI National Accreditation Board suspended the lab for 30 days, then revoked its accreditation indefinitely, over ballistics testing issues and evidence of cover-up attempts, WTOP first reported. The ensuing series of departures that shook up the agency’s leadership included its former director, quality assurance manager, and head of the Firearms Examination Unit before the firearms unit was disbanded in September. Federal prosecutors investigating the lab later found a deep lack of transparency and accountability

But the problems with D.C.’s crime lab go back much further than last year—or, rather, further than the 2015 homicide case in which the lab incorrectly linked two killings to the same gun. A 157-page investigative report on the agency’s overall operations released last month found a trifecta of longtime lab errors, subpar leadership and quality management systems, and a culture where employees didn’t feel comfortable speaking up about problems. 

Crispino mentioned the approximately 50 anonymous feedback surveys DFS had received from about 200 employees as a step toward creating safe spaces for employees to bring up issues. But Allen wondered aloud why 75 percent of employees weren’t completing the anonymous surveys, and what the agency could do to change these numbers and improve employee morale. Allen also stressed the importance of DFS advocating for funding for more staff, particularly in leadership and the legal team, in upcoming budget discussions with the mayor. 

The report released last month confirmed concerns and exacerbated fears from Attorney General Karl Racine, the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and city officials of the potential for DFS failures to have led to wrongful convictions for years while failing to identify perpetrators. In a letter addressed to Allen yesterday, the attorney general called for “a conviction integrity review that appears to be unprecedented in scope” for D.C.’s public safety and justice system to rebuild, echoing recommendations in the report. 

“Trust in DFS has been eviscerated,” Racine wrote. 

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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