- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2005

RICHMOND (AP) — Virginia’s pioneering forensics lab will break from the Department of Criminal Justice Services on July 1, a change sponsors are hoping will right a division stung by a recent audit.

The breakaway by the Division of Forensic Science will create an administrative forensic science board and a scientific advisory committee that can review the work done.

The forensics lab, which helped pioneer the crime-fighting use of DNA in the United States, erred in critical testing in the case of pardoned death-row inmate Earl Washington Jr., a six-month independent audit concluded.

The audit found the lab ignored its own rules, reached an incorrect conclusion and failed to catch errors in the high-profile case, raising concerns about the quality of the lab’s work and prompting a review of 161 other DNA cases.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican, and Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, past and current Virginia State Crime Commission chairmen, respectively, sponsored the legislation. They hope the change will improve lab performance.

Mr. Albo said a crime-commission study of the lab found that DNA technology advanced so rapidly that the number of cases handled by the lab exploded, as did the number of cases in which DNA testing became applicable.

Because of heavy workloads, DNA testing currently takes an average of eight months. In 1999, it took less than half the time.

The crime commission largely blamed the DNA-testing backlog on inadequate funding. As a department, the lab will report its workload and budget needs directly to the General Assembly.

One of the most important things the new law does is create the scientific advisory committee, Mr. Stolle said.

Much will depend on the competence and independence of the 12 appointees to the committee, said Betty Layne DesPortes, a Richmond lawyer. They will be named by Gov. Mark Warner.

Miss DesPortes said the committee should have the power to act on its initiative, and that the review process for resolving reputed errors should involve independent, external audits.

Miss DesPortes has a master’s degree in forensic science and is the chairwoman of the Jurisprudence Section of the American Academy of Forensic Science.

“As we can see clearly from the Washington case, internal review does not work,” she said. The board and committee appointments will be critical, she said.

Miss DesPortes said the committee should not be dominated by forensic scientists, but scientists who would be more independent.

“Some of the critics think the field [of forensic science] is too narrow, and they all know one another,” Mr. Stolle said.

“On the other hand,” said Mr. Stolle, forensic scientists “know what is going on; they are experts. There’s no evidence to suggest that they’re going to try and protect each other.”

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