Bullet examination at crime lab
An examiner handles at a bullet at the Department of Forensic Sciences in 2017. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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This story was supported with funds from Spotlight DC—Capital City Fund for Investigative Journalism.

No prosecutor likes to lose. But for Michael Ambrosino, one adverse ruling in September 2019 probably stung more than most.

Back then, Ambrosino had a leading role at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C, where he managed the prosecution of cases involving DNA and other forensic evidence. And some of that evidence was a key part of the government’s case against Marquette Tibbs, who federal prosecutors believed had shot and killed a business associate during a scuffle in Anacostia in November 2016.

Analysts at D.C.’s crime lab, formally known as the Department of Forensic Sciences, had examined a gun that police claimed Tibbs threw away as he fled the scene of the shooting and concluded that it matched shell casings found there. Ambrosino hoped to call one of those firearms examiners, independent contractor Chris Coleman, to testify to those findings at trial, but Tibbs’ lawyers objected.

Ambrosino and attorneys at the Public Defender Service of D.C. squared off in a hearing before D.C. Superior Court Associate Judge Todd Edelman to argue over the matter, but neither side expected much drama: Judges typically allow such evidence at trial except in rare circumstances. But Edelman surprised them and opted to severely curtail what Coleman could testify about in court, arguing in the opinion that there were so many questions about the very science underpinning this sort of firearm testing that it would be irresponsible for the government to present it as conclusive.

This was a loss for Ambrosino personally (and a jury would later acquit Tibbs on the murder charges) but forensic experts also saw it as an indictment of the entire ballistics discipline. Some high-profile reports previously raised doubts about the science behind this testing, claiming that common methods for matching bullets to guns remain far too subjective. But it was another matter entirely to see a judge accept these arguments in court, according to Jessica Willis, a public defender who helped represent Tibbs in that case.

She says the ruling was broadly viewed as the opening of a “Pandora’s box” that could lead to much more scrutiny of firearms testing in court (and she says there have been similar rulings in at least half a dozen D.C. cases since Edelman’s decision). So this was bad news not only for prosecutors like Ambrosino, but also for DFS. In fact, many in D.C.’s criminal legal system view this ruling as the inciting incident that kicked off a two-year-long struggle between prosecutors and D.C. leaders over the lab’s future, a clash that would upend all evidence testing in the District.

Behind the scenes, tensions between DFS and prosecutors were running high. DFS officials felt that the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which manages most prosecutions for the city, had kept them in the dark about these proceedings as they played out. Karen Wiggins, then the director of the DFS Forensic Science Laboratory, told Ambrosino that she was “very perplexed” he did not contact her directly about this dispute over Coleman’s testimony, according to a Sept. 10, 2019, email obtained by City Paper.

Ambrosino replied that he’d spoken with Coleman and kept DFS in the loop, generally, but Wiggins repeatedly denied that the lab got a chance to provide meaningful input, the emails show. In subsequent emails, Ambrosino explained that he relied on non-DFS experts to prepare for the case because he harbored doubts about DFS’ methods, arguing that “DFS firearm examiners have periodically exceeded what leaders in the scientific community believe are the outer bounds of appropriate testimony.” He also blamed some previous errors by DFS for enabling public defenders to “push their narrative that firearms is ‘junk’ science,” according to the emails.

Not long afterward, Ambrosino would approach Coleman to discuss this loss and engineer the start of a federal investigation into the lab’s methods. The rest has been well documented in copious news reports on the subject: A team of independent auditors was assembled to scrutinize the lab, and D.C.’s Office of the Inspector General dug into problems there (twice), with each review uncovering additional disturbing information. Things got so bad that the lab’s accrediting body said it wasn’t fit to keep testing evidence, and the department’s director, Jenifer Smith, was forced to resign. 

Through it all, the prevailing narrative about the situation has been pretty simple: federal prosecutors have led efforts to uncover evidence of the crime lab making some big mistakes, and the department’s leadership tried to cover them up rather than addressing the problems. Much of that may be true, but, as ever, there is more to the story.

City Paper has spoken to more than a dozen people close to the issue, including current and former DFS employees, defense attorneys, lawmakers, forensic scientists, and prosecutors, and many agree that you can’t understand the crime lab saga without understanding the role the federal government played in orchestrating the department’s unraveling. There were undoubtedly problems at the crime lab, but some feel federal prosecutors used them as an opening to seize more control over evidence processing instead of earnestly working to improve D.C.’s justice system. Specifically, they believe Ambrosino, who oversaw the lab for the feds and has since left the office, caused most of the tension between prosecutors and scientists as he sought to wrest control of evidence testing from the District lab and bring it under federal jurisdiction.

That is a huge problem for a lab specifically designed to operate independently from the whims of police and prosecutors. D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson plans to issue a full report on these issues later this fall, but she feels “it’s safe to say DFS has not been permitted to operate as an independent forensics facility as originally intended and as best practices would dictate.”

“The power of the federal government was thrown at this little crime lab,” Smith, who now works as a private consultant, tells City Paper. “It really demonstrates the bullying of the federal government against D.C. and it’s D.C. taxpayers paying the price.”

Jenifer Smith, the former director of the Department of Forensic Sciences, believes federal prosecutors contributed to her department’s dissolution. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

This all takes on special relevancy as the Council debates comprehensive legislation to reform the department, which includes new mechanisms to root out problems at the lab before they get so severe. Over the past few years, federal prosecutors used their influence to commence a series of investigations into the lab and sidestep oversight procedures for DFS established by D.C. law. Many fear that even if the Council passes the reforms to DFS, what is to stop the feds from running over those structures again?

In a May 2021 letter to lawmakers, Mayor Muriel Bowser wrote that the influence of prosecutors could undermine “the viability of an independent crime lab model when one of its stakeholders has an outsized impact on the lab’s workload and accreditation” and expressed concern that “this will be a repeated cycle.” Others outside her administration harbor similar fears.

“As long as one prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office has that much power over the Department of Forensic Sciences, it is a structural problem,” says Willis, who is special counsel to the director on forensic science for the Public Defender Service. “How people wield their power will change. But I think having that much power is the problem.”

Ambrosino, who left the office last year and now works as an adjunct professor at George Washington University, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) declined to comment, but prosecutors repeatedly stressed in court papers and other documents that they were trying to ensure the integrity of the evidence they were presenting in court with all their scrutiny of DFS. Many other officials have argued that prosecutors aren’t exactly incentivized to dig into problems at the lab, so there’s little reason to doubt their motives.

“It wasn’t just them griping,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who has oversight over DFS as judiciary committee chair. “[Prosecutors] legitimately said, ‘This jeopardizes convictions that we’ve gotten. This jeopardizes our ability, if a suspect is guilty, to get a conviction’… It hit our criminal justice system, and will continue to do so for some time, incredibly deeply.”

Over the past two years, Allen believes, Bowser “minimized what was wrong at DFS over and over and over again,” and (like many others) he views efforts to blame prosecutors for the lab’s problems a bit skeptically. He’s hoping to move a bill that restores the lab as a “truly independent entity” sometime this fall, but he has been frustrated with Bowser’s lack of urgency on the legislation, too.

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart, who oversees DFS, did not answer detailed questions from City Paper for this article, but a spokesperson for his office says that the administration “has been in dialogue with the D.C. Council to identify solutions, and [we] are in agreement that the recommendations outlined in the Council’s bill are important to creating long-term stability.”

Plainly, everyone involved with the issue believes the situation at the lab is untenable and desperately needs to change. But without a fuller understanding of the department’s history, and the many players in this complex game, meaningful change from either the Council or the mayor could be elusive.

Not your average CSI 

Most people’s experience with crime labs begins and ends with David Caruso whipping off his sunglasses to deliver a bad one-liner on CSI: Miami. DFS, of course, isn’t quite what you might see on CBS.

It does perform many of the functions depicted in your average police procedural. It sends scientists to crime scenes to collect evidence, then tests that evidence to aid in police investigations: Fingerprints, firearms, and DNA are the lab’s main areas of focus. The department also includes a public health laboratory, which has been central to the city’s response to infectious diseases like COVID-19 and monkeypox. 

The typical crime show paints the forensic scientists working on these issues as the nerds of the police department, working arm-in-arm with detectives and prosecutors to solve crimes. That’s with good reason: Many big cities put their crime labs squarely under the purview of their police.

But, by design, DFS isn’t an arm of the Metropolitan Police Department. DFS launched in 2012 as one of the nation’s first independent crime labs, aiming to provide valuable services to police and prosecutors without bending to their every demand (since, the thinking goes, the government is biased toward securing convictions instead of objectively analyzing evidence).

Lawmakers chose this particular path in 2011 to align with an emerging expert consensus that many crime labs were too beholden to police. A 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences had recently upended the forensic science discipline with its examination of these issues, concluding that evidence testing standards weren’t uniform enough across the board and that many crime labs relied on these ambiguities to adjust evidence and bolster prosecutions. Scandals in labs ranging from North Carolina to California only further strengthened the growing arguments for independence in forensic science.

The District was already in the midst of building a brand new, $220 million forensic laboratory in Southwest to house its evidence processing efforts, which MPD largely managed at that time. So the timing felt right for the Council to create a department to assume control of that lab and restructure its forensic science efforts in the process.

The Department of Forensic Sciences has operated out of the city’s Consolidated Forensic Laboratory in Southwest since it opened in 2012. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

“We got pushback at the time from MPD and other law enforcement agencies that they would not have control over this independent agency, but that’s what it was all about,” says Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who drafted the legislation setting up DFS in his old role as at-large councilmember and judiciary committee chair. “We wanted them to see that, if they could just get past their own parochial concerns, having a forensic lab function at a high level is in everyone’s best interest.”

Mendelson and other reform proponents also insisted on a requirement that the lab be accredited, essentially meaning that outside experts would review the lab’s testing methods each year to guard against the haphazard standards employed at other, police-run crime labs. They settled on an industry leader with a whale of a name to manage this process: The American National Standards Institute’s National Accreditation Board, commonly known as ANAB.

A new, independent lab would solve other problems, too. MPD had taken control of a good deal of evidence testing from federal agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms or the FBI over the years, but it still had to rely on the feds for plenty of other work—the Drug Enforcement Agency handled narcotics testing, for instance, while the FBI and U.S. Secret Service had to analyze documents and electronic records. 

That was a problem for local cops, who often felt as if they were sending evidence into a black box. Federal prosecutors generally had good relationships with federal labs, but D.C. officials felt they had no control over how the feds prioritized the evidence they got from the District. Sam Harahan, one of the drafters of the DFS bill and one of the founders of the Council for Court Excellence, remembers hearing complaints from MPD about federal labs even in cases as high profile as the 2001 killing of intern Chandra Levy.

“They had a very important bit of evidence that they wanted to have examined by the FBI Quantico lab,” Harahan says. “It got there about an hour after the evidence for the USS Cole bombing in the Middle East came into the Quantico lab. And so what was normally a fairly quick turnaround was put on the shelf for like 60 days.”

With DFS, police would have a local lab that might actually respond if they said a case was urgent. But to maintain its independence and ensure transparency into its operations, defense attorneys and other forensic experts asked the Council to also include an oversight body of some kind in the legislation. 

The answer was the Science Advisory Board, a nine-member group of scientists and other independent experts appointed by the mayor to handle “all reports of allegations of professional negligence, misconduct, or misidentification or other testing error,” according to DFS’ founding statute. An additional “stakeholder council” of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the mayor’s representatives, and others in the criminal legal system was convened to supplement that work and generally oversee the department’s performance.

But neither of these entities would be called upon to play a leading role in sorting out the problems at the lab that would crop up years later. And many close to DFS believe that Ambrosino is to blame.

‘B-movie sordid’

Nearly three hours into a Council committee hearing back in February 2011, Michael Ambrosino settled into a seat at a Wilson Building witness table.

A few months earlier, Ambrosino had landed a job as the first special counsel for DNA and forensics at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C. Now, as the Council was considering creating its own crime lab, Ambrosino had shown up to provide input on the legislation standing up DFS and weigh in on how a local lab might work with his office.

In his testimony, he noted that federal prosecutors weren’t opposed to the creation of an independent lab. But he wasn’t exactly over the moon about it either, arguing that a “complete organizational restructuring is not necessarily required to provide the unit managers with the independence and the dedicated funding necessary to succeed.” 

Michael Ambrosino, a former federal prosecutor who played a central role in investigating the crime lab, appears at a D.C. Council hearing in 2011. Credit: D.C. Council

Ambrosino went on to share lengthy stories about two different cases where prosecutors and forensic scientists didn’t work together closely enough and missed potentially significant breakthroughs, arguing that it is “absolutely essential” for this sort of information sharing to happen, regardless of the lab’s ultimate structure. He even took a shot at the proposal to form the SAB, saying it is “unclear what would be accomplished by an independent advisory board that would not be managed through the legislatively mandated accreditation.”

That all might have sounded innocuous enough at the time, but it takes on more significance with the benefit of hindsight. Ambrosino would become the chief point of contact between DFS and USAO when the lab started up, and former DFS director Smith believes he always felt as if the department should serve the needs of prosecutors directly instead of operating independently, chafing at the idea of full autonomy from the lab’s inception.

“Mike was a very senior prosecutor who expressed his scientific opinions quite a bit,” Smith says, recalling Ambrosino’s insistence on offering notes on the lab’s DNA testing virtually as soon as she joined DFS. “And that was something that, of course, I would listen to. But he, at the end of the day, was a prosecutor and bringing science to the scientists. And some of the suggestions he made were not scientifically sound.”

Smith and many others close to the lab believe that Ambrosino is perhaps the most pivotal figure in this whole saga, almost single-handedly driving the myriad investigations into the crime lab. That might sound a bit far-fetched, but a close examination of the record shows that he has a Forrest Gump-esque knack for showing up at important moments in the department’s history.

Consider, for instance, that Ambrosino helped kick off the first scandal that would envelop the crime lab in 2014.

In May of that year, Ambrosino hired an outside expert to review DNA evidence in a pair of burglary cases prosecutors believed were connected. That expert proceeded to raise some concerns about how DFS analyzed six different pieces of evidence in those cases, and the USAO decided to assemble a panel of experts to review the lab’s DNA testing protocols.

The crime lab’s own internal investigation concluded in January 2015 that this was a result of a “difference of opinion” between DFS scientists and the USAO’s expert (hardly an uncommon outcome in the field of DNA testing). But prosecutors harbored more substantial concerns and stopped sending DNA evidence to the lab for testing.

The USAO’s panel of experts would eventually issue a highly critical report of the lab’s methods in April 2015. The lab’s accreditors at the ANAB also stepped in to perform their own audit, and suspended all DNA testing at the lab after alleging problems with its methods. The newly inaugurated Bowser would fire three of the lab’s top executives and force the resignation of the department’s director, Max Houck, soon afterward.

The forensic science field generally reacted with shock to this development. In a 2015 article published in the California Association of Criminalists’ newsletter, scientists Keith Inman and Norah Rudin wrote that testing procedures at the lab were “not optimal,” but argued that “if all U.S. forensic DNA laboratories were held to the same standard to which the D.C. DFS lab was held, few would be left standing.”

“While we are first in line to complain of poor mixture interpretation, is this sufficient reason to fire senior management (including legal counsel) and shut down an entire laboratory?” the pair questioned.

Additionally, they expressed “particular concern” for “the complete and utter disregard” of the SAB, which was created to arbitrate such issues. A member of the board, Jay Siegel, even resigned in protest in May 2015, writing in a letter to Bowser that he felt prosecutors had completely disregarded the board and their actions were “clearly not based on scientific considerations.”

“Were the complaints about DNA interpretation an excuse to strike back at a laboratory management that had denied them some of the prerogatives that laboratories have traditionally granted to prosecutors—a way to bring an independent laboratory back under law enforcement control?” William Thompson, a professor of criminology and law at the University of California at Irvine, wrote in a May 2015 op-ed for the Washington Post. “This sends a strong message to laboratory directors nationwide who come into conflict with local prosecutors. The message is be afraid, be very afraid. That, in itself, is a serious setback for efforts to protect the scientific independence of crime laboratories.”

To Smith, who was hired to replace Houck in July 2015, this incident thoroughly foreshadowed what was to come several years later. The independent experts, the circumvention of the SAB, the intervention from the accrediting body: It would all happen at DFS again. 

“From a scientist’s perspective, we’ve run this experiment twice, with the same result,” Smith says. 

Beyond these highly technical disputes, Inman and Rudin write that there were “B-movie sordid” aspects of Ambrosino’s involvement too, all of which contributed to the department’s deteriorating relationship with the USAO.

Prosecutors disclosed in a December 2014 court filing that Ambrosino was involved in a romantic relationship with Andrea Borchardt-Gardner, an executive at the Northern Virginia-based Bode Technology Group. The USAO had hired Bode to perform DNA testing after it decided to stop sending evidence to DFS (in fact, Bode remains a private contractor with DFS to this day).

Such a decision wasn’t the greatest look for prosecutors: “When you have a private lab and you paid them to produce results, you can have a lot of say about what those results are,” a former DFS official told the Daily Caller, of all places, which reported on Ambrosino’s connection to Bode and Borchardt-Gardner in June 2015. But DFS officials still chose to hire her in October 2015 as the manager of its DNA unit (the department told the conservative outlet at the time that it was aware of her relationship with Ambrosino, and she cleared an ethics review from the mayor’s legal counsel).

Borchardt-Gardner (who would later marry Ambrosino) would remain with DFS through 2019, and Smith and other DFS officials believe Ambrosino was placated by her presence there. It was only after she left in April of that year before things turned ugly again.

Specifically, many close to the department believe things truly started to boil over midway through 2019. Smith recalls one spat that burst into public view in July. 

A line prosecutor had claimed repeatedly in a gun and drug possession case that he couldn’t secure test results to meet court-mandated deadlines due to “confusion and backlog” at DFS. When a Washington Post reporter contacted Smith about that claim, she was confused, as she believed the lab had completed all the testing necessary in that case ahead of schedule (and she told prosecutors as much). The USAO eventually admitted the error and referred the junior prosecutor for disciplinary action, with all of the drama captured in the Post’s pages.

A few months later, Ambrosino suffered that fateful loss in the Tibbs case, where a judge limited DFS analyst Chris Coleman’s testimony over concerns about firearms evidence. Federal investigators would later learn that Ambrosino approached Coleman after the ruling to discuss the case, and Coleman referred him to former DFS employee Deion Christophe. This bit of advice would ultimately kick off the Department of Justice’s investigation of the lab, a critical turning point for DFS.

Investigating the investigators

Christophe quit his job as a DFS firearms examiner back in July 2017 after making some serious allegations about improper conduct at the lab. Christophe alleged that DFS employees claimed on multiple occasions to have conducted firearms testing without actually doing so (an illegal process known in the industry as “dry labbing”) and that DFS managers covered up these misrepresentations.

Christophe filed a complaint with the ANAB, and DFS spent months litigating his concerns. The lab’s accrediting body ultimately dismissed his complaint as “unfounded” in May 2018, according to a letter provided to City Paper, but DFS spent some time reviewing its methods and scrutinizing its policies in the wake of his allegations. The agency included prosecutors (and Ambrosino specifically) in many of these deliberations, according to emails from that time period, but the USAO does not appear to have taken action on the matter.

But when Ambrosino spoke with Coleman in the wake of the Tibbs ruling in September 2019, Coleman told him that Christophe “had information calling into question the integrity” of DFS leaders, according to the DOJ’s report on its investigation of the lab. Though he hadn’t addressed these issues before, Ambrosino was suddenly interested in Christophe’s story. Shortly after hearing it, he successfully convinced the DOJ to open its investigation into the lab, the report says.

DOJ investigators extensively interviewed Christophe and a litany of DFS employees (some later complained of FBI agents showing up at their homes unannounced at 6 a.m., per internal documents sent to City Paper) but the department ultimately closed the inquiry in January 2020 without filing any criminal charges. The DOJ’s report notes that it couldn’t find any “criminal intent” among DFS officials, nor even any evidence that anyone at DFS lied to federal agents (one of the most common charges the FBI levels in any investigation).

However, the DOJ report did allege evidence of “poor judgment, communicative failures, and mismanagement” within DFS, and urged D.C.’s Office of the Inspector General to investigate the lab in more detail (an investigation that appears to be still ongoing).

That didn’t stop Ambrosino and federal prosecutors from pushing further on their own. They ordered re-testing of evidence in a variety of other cases, and eventually discovered perhaps the most serious error DFS has made to date: firearms examiners mistakenly concluded that bullets found in two different 2015 murders were fired from the same gun. Worse yet, multiple examiners confirmed those faulty results.

Federal prosecutors were so perturbed by that revelation that they worked with D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine’s office to set up an independent audit of the lab, hiring three outside experts with lots of history in the field: Bruce Budowle, James Carroll, and Todd Weller. This matches the approach the USAO took during the dust-up over DNA testing in 2014 (in fact, prosecutors also hired Budowle to work on that review of the lab). Racine says that prior experience gave him confidence in this approach’s efficacy.

“We needed to find out in short order whether we had a lab that we could rely on, or whether the developments at the lab were such that we wouldn’t be able to rely on the lab at all,” Racine says.

Attorney General Karl Racine Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

This joint audit would eventually unearth additional damning details about the lab’s mistakes in the 2015 cases, as well as instances where DFS supervisors appear to have tried to cover up these errors by withholding documents from prosecutors (though DFS has consistently disputed some of these details). Many forensic experts view this as perhaps the lab’s gravest sin throughout this whole saga, arguing that Smith and other leaders should’ve more forthrightly admitted these missteps instead of waiting several months to do so. The cases against both men charged in the 2015 murders, Joseph Brown and Rondell McLeod, are still ongoing, in no small part due to these evidence disputes.

But if the lab acted defensively throughout this whole process, Smith says it was because officials felt besieged by this audit, which did not move through standard channels for complaints about the lab. Smith felt it would’ve been much more productive had Ambrosino and Racine brought these issues to her directly, or at least to the “stakeholder council” of officials that oversee the lab.

But, strictly speaking, D.C. law calls for the Science Advisory Board to settle these disputes, and Smith repeatedly insisted that any outside audit of the department would not be legitimate if it didn’t move through the SAB. That was part of what so incensed scientists about the 2014 DNA dispute, after all.

Smith broadly saw prosecutors’ decision to ignore the SAB as yet another move to undercut the lab’s independence, and said as much at the time in letters to prosecutors provided to City Paper. Smith says she had the full backing of the Bowser administration on this front, and there’s contemporary evidence to suggest that was indeed the case—then-Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue wrote it “remains our intent for the SAB to lead the city’s review of DFS’s ballistic unit,” according to a June 15, 2020, email to SAB members. 

However, no comprehensive SAB review ever materialized, save for a few discussions of the 2015 cases at a handful of SAB meetings, per the group’s meeting minutes. Federal prosecutors appear to have been quite clear about their desire to cut the SAB out of the process at the time, forcefully pushing back against Smith’s request to send the matter to the board in a strongly worded June 15, 2020, letter to top District judges watching the dispute.

It seems much of this reticence stemmed from the perception that DFS exerted too much influence over the SAB for it to serve as an independent arbiter of the agency’s problems. Allen, for one, believes it’s “awfully convenient” for Smith to press for SAB to have a role when he found in his oversight of the agency that the board was “in the dark and kept in the dark by the director.”

Current and former SAB members have confirmed that characterization, noting that DFS leadership strictly controlled the agendas of meetings and the materials the board could even get access to—sitting SAB member Henry Swofford notes the board can “only review what they ask us to review.”

“There were very rarely discussions that were directed by the members of the SAB,” Willis says, noting that she attended many of the group’s meetings over the years in her capacity as a public defender. “It very much felt as if Dr. Smith set the agenda, Dr. Smith set the boundaries, and Dr. Smith and her staff sort of decided what information to provide.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the public defenders supported the prosecutors’ audit of the lab. To the contrary, they wrote their own June 15, 2020, letter to the USAO expressing their alarm about the process.

Public defenders joined DFS in questioning the independence of the auditors that prosecutors selected for the team. Two of the three (Budowle and Weller) served as expert witnesses on the Marquette Tibbs case, the case that proved to be a damaging black eye for Ambrosino and the firearms examination industry broadly. 

Budowle’s entanglement was even more substantial—both DFS and PDS noted with some concern that Budowle had applied for Smith’s job when it came open in 2015 and was passed over (Budowle did not respond to a request for comment). DFS also accused Budowle of being a personal friend of Ambrosino’s. He later confirmed this assertion in an interview with WTOP, but said it was an effort by DFS to “distract from the fundamental issues.” Acting United States Attorney Michael Sherwin acknowledged these facts, too, but called questions about the auditors’ objectivity “frivolous” in his June 15, 2020, letter on the subject. 

DFS and PDS both felt that Ambrosino’s involvement in the audit was wholly inappropriate. In a lengthy May 6, 2020, letter to the USAO, Smith accused Ambrosino of “professionally unethical conduct,” claiming that he inappropriately worked with the DFS’s then-general counsel Rashee Raj to access confidential information. She also charged that he and Raj worked together to conceal information from defense attorneys that they were entitled to see—PDS wrote in its June 15 letter that “these findings are grave and, if accurate, have ramifications that may affect hundreds of PDS clients.”

Sherwin called those claims “false, misleading, and without foundation” in his June 15 letter, but still agreed to forward them along to the D.C. Court of Appeals’ Office of Disciplinary Counsel (which investigates disputes among lawyers). Smith says she asked for the USAO to assign a new liaison to replace Ambrosino while an investigation into these complaints proceeded. But she was ignored, and he remained in the role.

That disciplinary office closed its investigation into Ambrosino and dismissed the case, writing it did not find “sufficient evidence” that he violated any ethics rules in a December 2021 letter City Paper obtained. It’s unclear whether the office also investigated Raj, who now works as general counsel for D.C.’s Board of Government Ethics and Accountability. Hamilton Fox, the head of the disciplinary counsel office, says he can not confirm or deny the existence of any cases his office handles until they’re closed. Raj declined to comment on the matter.

All of these concerns about the audit aside, the work proceeded apace. The auditors issued their final report in March 2021, arguing that the errors in ballistics work were so severe that the lab should stop doing any firearms analysis until changes could be made. They also argued that DFS officials tried to cover up these mistakes and “misrepresented” the errors to the lab’s accrediting body, the ANAB. 

That group acted soon afterward and stripped the lab’s accreditation in April 2021, forcing it to stop all in-house evidence testing, not just ballistic work. Smith appealed this decision almost right away, arguing that ANAB didn’t raise any of the issues it cited in its decision when it re-accredited the lab a few months earlier, in October 2020. She would also later accuse ANAB personnel of being “inappropriately influenced” by federal prosecutors in a December 2021 complaint provided to City Paper. ANAB Vice President for Forensics Pam Sale declined to discuss Smith’s accusations in detail, but did say that the organization “did not coordinate with the USAO in connection with its accreditation decisions.”

Smith says she had preliminary discussions with another accrediting organization about re-certifying the lab for operation, but the ANAB decision was pretty much the death knell for her tenure. Bowser asked her to resign in May, leaving the lab in the same uncertain position it finds itself in today.

There are a considerable number of questions about how these audits and investigations into the lab were started and how they were conducted, and they’ve rarely been raised publicly. There is little doubt that they uncovered serious errors at the lab, but was this the simplest, clearest way to do so? And did this strategy protect the lab’s independence and minimize the influence of prosecutors? Many people close to the matter agree the answers to those questions are a very clear “No.”

“There were mistakes made, there were errors made, but it absolutely didn’t have to result in the agency being sidelined,” says Harahan, one of the drafters of the bill creating DFS. “It didn’t have to go down that way.”

‘The fallout of our lab melting down’

So after all the auditing, investigating, and bickering, is forensic science in the District any better off? 

Those supportive of federal prosecutors argue that this was a painful and messy process, but ultimately a necessary one because it rooted out deeper issues within DFS.

But without accreditation, DFS has been forced to farm out all the testing it used to do itself. Naturally, that slows down the testing process, and the agency has reported a sharp rise in case backlogs. 

A DFS spokesperson told City Paper that, as of late September:

  • it has 375 requests for fingerprint analyses waiting to be completed. In 2018, well before these issues cropped up, DFS reported no fingerprint case backlog whatsoever. 
  • it has roughly 609 DNA cases waiting for review, compared to an average backlog of 118 cases in 2018. 

DFS also told the Council in January that just 36 percent of all evidence submitted to the lab in 2021 was processed within three days; in 2020, it managed to do so in 73 percent of cases. 

Willis says she has seen “really lengthy turnaround times” for DNA testing in cases involving her clients, in particular, which has put a strain on a court system that has already seen mammoth delays due to COVID.

So, if not DFS, who is doing the work? Some federal agencies like ATF have been able to step in, as have labs in other states, like Connecticut and Wyoming, without extra costs to the District. But DFS is also outsourcing a good deal of its work to private labs, and that’s certainly not free. The agency expects to spend nearly $1.5 million in fiscal year 2022 to send DNA and fingerprint evidence to three other companies, according to data it provided to the Council.

Prosecutors have been hiring their own outside experts, too. A spokesperson for Racine estimates his office has spent $85,000 “investigating and auditing DFS’ failures since 2020,” including money spent on new testing. Representatives from the USAO also said during a June 30, 2022, hearing on Allen’s DFS reform bill that they’ve spent a combined $7.02 million on outside testing and expert testimony between 2018 and 2022.

And it’s not as if prosecutors have eliminated forensics mistakes simply by getting DFS out of the picture. USAO recently told defense attorneys representing several different clients that they discovered a series of errors by one of the private contractors their office hired to examine digital evidence following an internal investigation last year, according to court documents. 

Prosecutors have withheld the contractor’s identity and many details of the investigation, but they did tell a D.C. Superior Court judge in a March 2022 hearing that this person accidentally altered several files while examining data from a phone, according to a transcript of the proceeding. Willis, who is helping to represent the defendant (who is accused of a 2020 shooting) told the judge that the problems ran much deeper, based on disclosures from prosecutors. She noted that there were “multiple failures of basic competencies of this person” and “multiple instances of dishonesty” during the USAO’s investigation.

“This is a private contractor used by a federal agency not accountable to D.C. residents, under absolutely no oversight from the D.C. Council,” Willis said during the hearing. “If this were DFS, they would be in front of an oversight committee, potentially, to discuss these kinds of things. That doesn’t exist here. That’s part of the fallout of our lab melting down.”

Essentially, this incident shows that forensic mishaps can happen anywhere, not just at DFS. But, as Willis observes, at least local officials have some input into what goes on at a local lab.

Yet that local lab is stuck in limbo, waiting for D.C. leaders to make a decision about its future. The agency’s seen an exodus of employees over the last few months, and has had an interim director, Anthony Crispino, ever since Smith left last year. D.C. law technically requires Bowser to nominate a permanent agency head after six months, but Crispino has been in the role for well over a year, much to Allen’s chagrin

Allen’s frustrated that the mayor hasn’t even asked for an extension, given the lab’s unique circumstances, or even “laid out and articulated, ‘here’s what our leadership plan looks like.’” The lab has yet to re-apply for accreditation, too, though Crispino told the Council earlier this year that it could do so sometime this fall.

But Bowser could well be waiting to see what becomes of Allen’s reform bill before she takes additional action. He’s optimistic it will pass before the end of the year, though the timeline remains fluid.

Until that happens, the crime lab remains in an impossible position. But it hasn’t been all bad news for prosecutors. Without DFS in the picture, the USAO can hire pretty much whatever private experts it wants, or send cases to federal labs where it has close ties. None of those entities are bound by the same expectations of independence from prosecutors (in fact, some of the private contractors prosecutors rely on aren’t even accredited, as they operate via different standards than a government lab like DFS). 

USAO is undoubtedly not thrilled that the DFS debacle has prompted calls for the retesting of some evidence handled by the lab (Bowser has agreed to do so, but the debate over the scope and cost of that re-testing is very much ongoing, according to emails and meeting notes obtained by City Paper). Yet, on balance, the final outcome of these years of disputes sure seems to be that the feds gained a lot more control over evidence processing in the District. Ambrosino left the office late last year, but Smith imagines this is the exact result he was driving towards.

“We can’t tell the federal government what to do,” Harahan says. “And anytime there is a retrocession of functions, I think it’s a step back in terms of where we need to go as a jurisdiction.”

But as these high-minded debates over local autonomy unfold, the employees at DFS are left stuck in the middle. The lab is still severely limited in what it can actually do—the department even chose to lay off all 11 members of its Firearms Examination Unit in September 2021, as they weren’t allowed to do much work, and there are no plans to replace them. Staffers at the department continue to perform what tasks they can, but it’s not hard to see what sort of effect this had on morale.

Guns and a bullet at the Department of Forensic Sciences in 2017. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Ashley Bobek, one of the former firearms examiners, remembers returning to the lab to pack her things after the layoffs happened. She’d been on her honeymoon when she got the bad news, and returned to find her old work space in a state of disarray. In particular, Bobek recalls noticing that her colleagues had tossed their DFS employee awards on a table to be thrown away.

“I think maybe because they didn’t want to be reminded of, you know, what had happened, but that was probably the saddest part for me was seeing the awards,” Bobek says. “Just in a pile on the table all alone. You know that someone had one, but it didn’t mean anything to them anymore.”

Bobek describes herself as someone who “loved DFS to its core” and invested in helping D.C. residents get justice as well as building DFS up with programs like the awards she helped create to keep coworkers motivated during tough caseloads (or multi-hour OIG interviews). She was one of several young employees DFS recruited for its intensive, two-year training program to become certified firearms examiners. 

Her recruitment was part of a strategy to build a cohort of homegrown forensic talent fresh from STEM programs (instead of policing backgrounds) and then train them from the ground up. Former director Smith said her goal was also to recruit and retain more female and Black and brown forensic scientists to help change what is an overwhelmingly White, male field, with the help of a diversity and inclusion committee and hiring panels.

Smith said that the benefits of DFS’ young and motivated workforce for D.C. residents was clear: In addition to whittling down case backlogs, employees also started tracking issues hitting D.C. streets long before federal agencies—from fentanyl to ghost guns. Now the backlogs are soaring and the ghost gun program is dead in the water, per a Council official. Much like other firearms testing, ATF handles ghost gun counting efforts now, an agency spokesman said.

Bobek had previously received a holiday gift from her DFS firearm colleagues: a box of demotivational poster magnets, which made for good fodder for a group text with her DFS coworkers amid the chaos at the lab. After the layoffs, she said they asked her to text one last picture of a magnet. She found one that said, “Productivity: Just remember, however hard you work, you can be replaced.”

This story was supported with funds from Spotlight DC—Capital City Fund for Investigative Journalism.