- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Forensics and legal analysts say a sweeping crime lab oversight measure passed by Maryland lawmakers after a discredited state police ballistics specialist committed suicide takes innovative steps to safeguard the integrity of forensic labs.

The General Assembly unanimously passed the bill, which was introduced before the suicide of Joseph Kopera. It directs the state health department to create Maryland’s first regulations for licensing state, county and municipal crime labs. The secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would be able to suspend or revoke licenses. Gov. Martin O’Malley is considering whether to sign the bill, passed in the legislative session that ended last month.

While Texas, Virginia and Minnesota have formed oversight panels in recent years to address crime lab misconduct, critics argue that reform efforts have failed to do much, because the boards lack the teeth needed to take action. Supporters of reform say the Maryland bill goes much further.

William C. Thompson, a forensic science specialist at the University of California at Irvine, criticized panels that have “largely dedicated themselves to rubber-stamping what the laboratories are currently doing.”

Maryland’s measure, by contrast, was designed to put the regulating in the hands of a department with experience in scientifically based oversight of medical lab work.

“I think it’s the most innovative and promising of the state approaches so far,” Mr. Thompson said. “It creates a degree of separation between the regulators and the regulatees, which is healthy.”

Crime lab integrity has been under the spotlight in Maryland in recent months. Mr. Kopera, a veteran police ballistics specialist, committed suicide in March after being confronted by public defenders who discovered he had lied about his academic credentials.

Michele Nethercott, who heads the Maryland public defender’s Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the wrongly convicted, contends the legal implications are huge. Mr. Kopera testified in hundreds of cases over a long career. So far, Miss Nethercott said, 36 inmates have contacted her, hoping to get new trials.

“That’s the proverbial tip of the iceberg,” she said. “The numbers, I think, they’re going to be fairly staggering when this is all over with.”

Mr. Kopera joined the state police in 1991 after working for 21 years in the Baltimore Police Department’s crime laboratory. He testified in state courts in all 24 Maryland jurisdictions. He also testified in federal courts, and in Delaware, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Prosecutors have expressed doubt that the ramifications of Mr. Kopera’s lack of credentials will be wide-ranging. They say his job involved considerable on-the-job training and he didn’t need the degrees he claimed to have.

“You don’t need any degree to do it,” said Frank Kratovil, president of the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association.

Although the bill was introduced before Mr. Kopera’s suicide, Miss Nethercott thinks revelations about his dishonesty boosted support for the measure.

The bill directs the health department to create qualifications for personnel who work in the laboratories and establish procedures for verifying educational backgrounds. It includes whistleblower protections for people in crime labs who report troubling activity and it also would require Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, to create a Forensic Laboratory Advisory Committee to advise the secretary of the health department.

Miss Nethercott, who helped draft the bill, said it enables regulators to conduct unannounced inspections and take action to either fix problems or shut down a lab.

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