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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Put scientists, not cops, in crime labs

The Michigan State Police released a final report late last month on the firearms unit of the Detroit Police Crime Lab. It’s a highly disturbing document.

MSP found, among other deficiencies, that guns and bullets were kept unsecured and unprotected from possible loss and contamination; that essential records were missing in some 90% of the files; that critical scientific equipment had never been properly calibrated; and that many of the firearms examiners were untrained and unqualified.

An audit of 283 of the cases handled by the unit found an error rate greater than 10% – including several cases in which the examiners apparently assumed that the submitted bullets and shell casings came from the defendants’ guns without actually testing all of the evidence. It is likely that errors by this unit have led to many wrongful convictions.

Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney Kym Worthy and Detroit Police Chief James Barren have responded forcefully to this fiasco. In September, after a preliminary version of the report was issued, they shut down the entire Detroit Police Crime Lab. Worthy is also committed to retesting evidence in the hundreds, if not thousands, of cases in which people have been convicted based on results from the firearms unit.

We commend Worthy and Barren for their commitment to seeing that justice is done. Their task will get even harder if the city finds the funds to complete the audit of the crime lab, including the units that deal with fingerprints, DNA evidence and other physical and biological specimens. [Mark Godsey]

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