Ex-director promotes oversight panel as he criticizes State Police labs

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Michigan State Police crime lab vehicles on scene near where a body was found on Friday afternoon April in Ash Township.

Lansing — The former director of the Michigan State Police forensic science division gave fiery testimony Tuesday about problems at the agency while pleading with lawmakers to support the formation of a commission to oversee the lab’s work.

As director between 2010 and 2012, John Collins said he was forced to give first preference to troopers instead of scientists when jobs opened up and was told to rehire a “rogue scientist” fired for “knowingly falsifying data” because of binding arbitration.

He said he faced pressure from a county prosecutor who threatened the lab’s funding if the lab did not perform “wasteful” forensic testing and assumed the burden of a shuttered Detroit crime lab in 2008 and 11,000 untested sexual assault kits in 2009.

“It is not an exaggeration to point out that it seemed at the time that the state of Michigan had devolved into a sort of forensic science Wild West,” Collins said at the House Judiciary Committee. “…I have never, ever encountered anything like what I experienced here in Michigan.”

Collins testified beside state Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, whose bill would create a commission to develop policies and procedures for forensic science operations in Michigan.

The panel would address and investigate complaints against forensic science agencies and submit a report to the state Legislature evaluating the “needs and performance” of various forensic science services.

The bill would have the largest impact on the state’s two accredited crime labs — the Michigan State Police forensic science division and the Oakland County Sheriff Department’s lab. Some private labs also would fall under the purview of the commission, Barrett said. 

The Michigan State Police forensic science division employs 245 scientists and handles roughly 80,000 criminal cases per year.

The commission would not be able to make a finding on the guilt or innocence of a person, Barrett said, and should not be perceived as an impeachment of the state police.

“I just want to make sure we have proper balances and oversight,” he said.

Michigan State Police opposed the bill Tuesday, arguing that issues Collins singled out have since been addressed and that the best way to keep it accountable is the department’s accreditation, which has been consistently obtained since 1984.

“We take a lot of pride in our accreditation procedure and the quality of work we produce,” said Capt. Beth Clark, MSP’s current forensic science division director.

Rep. Rose Mary Robinson, a longtime defense attorney, supported the bill, arguing that forensic experts are consistently tied to prosecutors and police.

“The whole system is slanted against having a fair trial in Michigan,” the Detroit Democrat said. 

Two Michigan exonerees who served decades in prison because of mistaken forensic evidence added their support to the bill. However, representatives from Michigan Innocence Clinic and Innocence Project noted state police have been helpful in their work. 

Ledura Watkins was convicted of a murder in Detroit in 1976 based in part on microscopic hair analysis that was later determined to be flawed evidence.

"The same evidence that helped convict me was the same evidence that helped release me," Watkins said. "I don't know if anyone can understand that."

Legislators questioned whether the oversight task could be handled by the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs instead of the proposed 10-member commission consisting largely of forensic scientists, pathologists and university professors with expertise in cognitive bias, statistics and forensic science.  

LARA may not be able to provide the same expertise, Barrett said.

“When we’re dealing with guilt and innocence we have to have a high standard for what we expect the inconvenience to government would be,” he said.


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