Report Recommends Disclosure of Differences in Lab Findings

, New York Law Journal

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A scientist uses a multipipette during a DNA test.
A scientist uses a multipipette during a DNA test.

ALBANY - The state inspector general is urging forensic laboratories statewide to "document and report significant disagreements" among technicians, a recommendation with potentially important implications for criminal prosecutions.

Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott's suggestion, nestled into a lengthy report on botched tests and questionable practices by the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), would require disclosure of information that could prompt a prosecutor to back away from a rape or murder case while arming the defense with a powerful cross examination tool in matters that do go to trial.

Scott said in her report that while laboratory disagreements on scientific conclusions are relatively rare, when they do occur, the dissension should be revealed and included in the final report submitted to law enforcement. She urged the New York State Commission on Forensic Science, a 14-member board that establishes accreditation standards for all forensic laboratories, to develop protocols for what constitutes a "significant disagreement."

The report issued Thursday resulted from a Jan. 10 New York Times article reporting that OCME was reviewing more than 800 rape cases in which a technician with a long history of subpar work may have mishandled evidence and provided inaccurate or incomplete information to investigators. Based on the article and several requests for an investigation, the inspector general launched a probe.

Scott's investigation found that the technician, Serrita Mitchell, who spent a decade at OCME despite consistently poor performance reviews and her repeated failure to pass a competency test, mishandled sexual assault kits, commingled samples from different crimes and misplaced and mislabeled evidence.

In at least two cases, where Mitchell reported that there were no biological materials on rape victims' clothing, subsequent analysis several years later revealed that the alleged offender had in fact left behind a genetic fingerprint.

One of the suspects was arrested a decade after the rape of a 14-year-old girl, but the victim was no longer interested in pursuing the matter and the charge was dropped.

The other case, which had also lingered for 10 years, fizzled when authorities could not locate the victim. Officials eventually ran a sample of the victim's DNA against a database of unidentified remains, linking the genetic material to that of a woman who was found dead in 2007.

While the investigation found a number of instances where Mitchell's errors hindered investigations that could have resulted in an arrest, there was no indication that her mistakes resulted in a wrongful arrest or conviction.

Mitchell, who failed in five attempts to pass an oral competency test because she "could not satisfactor[ily] explain and retain basic concepts" was essentially demoted and barred from working independently or signing DNA reports. Yet, she was allowed to maintain her salary and title, according to the report.

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