May 15, 2012 at 1:00 am

State Police work to cut crime lab backlog, get accredited

Det. Sgt. Cynthia Edwards studies fingerprints at the State Police crime lab in Sterling Heights. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

Lansing — Michigan's seven State Police crime labs could lose their accreditation this summer, potentially casting doubt on forensic evidence used statewide in prosecutions ranging from drunken driving to homicides.

The State Police Forensic Science Division's accreditation from a national board expired more than a year ago, forcing the agency to seek extensions while it works to meet new standards and reduce a backlog of several thousand evidence samples.

The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board granted a third extension last month but warned state officials not to request another one.

"State Police aren't going through anything different than other labs across the nation," said Ralph Keaton, the society's executive director. "Extensions aren't in themselves bad. If the ASCLAD board had concerns about the quality of work being done, they wouldn't grant an extension.

"But State Police have been advised this is the last extension. They have until this July to have all their labs up to standards."

The accrediting group's website shows Michigan is not alone. Eighteen other agencies, including state police labs in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, have legacy extensions.

Michigan State Police officials insist their labs are reliable and say they expect their accreditation in the International Testing Program to be renewed. But defense attorneys question the quality of evidence processed by the facilities, and even the lab's director concedes that losing the accreditation would hurt the agency's credibility.

"I don't see our accreditation being suspended," said John M. Collins, State Police lab director.

"That would mean our people would not be able to go into court as recognized experts. Or if they testified, attorneys would do their best to challenge them and the labs."

Collins declined to outline shortcomings that have prevented the labs from being reaccredited, but he insists the extensions don't reflect work deficiencies.

Law enforcement officials are watching with apprehension.

Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police and retired Livonia police chief, said he "hopes it's not true they might lose accreditation."

"The reliability of evidence is critical in investigations and prosecution," Stevenson said. "Anything to jeopardize that must be avoided. Losing accreditation would just give defense attorneys one more seed of doubt to place in the minds of a jury."

In some cases, that's already happening.

Neil Rockind, a former assistant Oakland County prosecutor who specializes in criminal defense, argued in his blog the labs aren't meeting the latest standards for processing evidence.

"They have been 'grandfathered' in," Rockind said. "They are the equivalent of a rickety old building in a brand new subdivision of homes."

Another Michigan defense attorney, Michael J. Nichols, who specializes in drunken-driving cases, said the repeated extensions raise questions about the labs.

"They have had five years to get up to standards," Nichols said. "If they can't pass exam twice after that, why are they giving them a third chance?"

Collins said delays in the accrediting process stem from the society analysts being unable to travel to Michigan; the State Police creating a new biological metrics division; and broader requirements for accreditation.

"Anything attacking the labs by defense attorneys has to be placed in the proper light: They are being advocates for their clients," said Shannon Banner, State Police spokeswoman.

While not mandatory, lab accreditation is a stamp of approval by the forensic science community to assure the public that labs meet established standards in processing evidence.

Many reasons for backlog

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, meanwhile, has proposed new resources to help chip away at the lab backlog of nearly 10,000 cases from across Michigan.

Lab officials say they're making progress: At the start of 2010, the backlog was more than 19,000 cases. The backlog does not include nearly 11,000 rape kits the State Police inherited after it took over the Detroit Police crime lab that closed in 2008.

Under Snyder's public safety plan, the labs' current $37 million budget would increase $5 million in fiscal year 2013-14. The extra funding would add 20 scientists, enhance lab case management and cover overtime for crime-scene processing, Banner said.

Of current staff, 180 have a direct role in processing casework, including 148 forensic scientists/technicians and 32 supervisors.

Backlogs cannot be attributed to one factor, such as staffing, but are best managed through improved practices, Banner said.

"Other things such as training, case submission policies and outreach with stakeholders can also be effective in reducing casework backlogs," she said.

"As an example, we recently cleared over 100 cases from our toxicology backlog by identifying cases that had already been adjudicated in court. Without this effort, these cases would have been worked by a scientist for no reason."

She noted the closure of the Detroit Police lab "increased our volume of casework by 20-25 percent." State Police lab technicians handle about 80,000 service requests each year, she said.

Collins said his goal is a "30-day turnaround" of all evidence, including DNA samples, and reducing the present backlog to about 1,000 cases.

Average turnaround for DNA analysis is 123 days, but "urgent cases can be analyzed within five days," Collins said. For other evidence, turnaround times are: drugs, 21 days; fingerprints, 23 days; toxicology, 36 days; firearms, 72 days; and trace evidence, 87 days. The labs' average turnaround time is 48 days.

Nichols said the turnaround time in getting evidence results is an ongoing problem.

"There is a three- to four-week wait on blood-alcohol counts and an eight-12 week wait on other drugs," Nichols said. "It can be a disservice and stressful for people going through the system."

Labs crucial for attorneys

Prosecutors said they rely on the State Police labs, and maintaining their service and credibility is crucial.

Even in Oakland County, where the Sheriff's Office has a lab that analyzes evidence except for DNA and blood-alcohol samples, officials are concerned about the prospect of having to use independent labs.

"It would seriously impact even our budget to have to go elsewhere to make our case," said Paul Walton, chief assistant prosecuting attorney. "The challenge of having good forensic evidence is something we have to meet every day with jurors."

Isabella County Prosecutor Larry Burdick, president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, said that "in 30 years I've had nothing but a very good experience with the labs."

"But it would be inconceivable if prosecutors would have to go outside State Police labs for evidence or testing," he said. "We don't have the resources for that, but we have to know our labs meet the necessary standards.

"If the defense is raising such questions, we better have answers."

For Brian Zubel, a defense attorney and former Oakland County assistant prosecutor who handled one of the state's first DNA cases, jury "analysis bias" is real and the labs need to be more accountable.

"ASCLAD isn't a watchdog," Zubel said. "These are just forensic scientists watching other forensic scientists. There are no regulatory powers and there is no accountability. There is a beauty and a purpose to science when it's done right. But otherwise, it's just bad science."

Banner stressed, "The labs have accreditation, have always had accreditation and expect to be accredited later this summer when the board takes it up again.

"We know what has to be done and it's being done."

mmartindale@detnews.com

(248) 338-0319