Dr. Chris Nulf worked for the Dallas County Crime lab for a little over a year. In that time, he says he saw inconsistent practices and poor evidence handling procedures. He sent anonymous complaints to the Texas Forensic Sciences Commission while he was employed there and continues to speak out today. But nothing has been done and the Dallas lab remains one that hasn’t come under review by the commission to date.
Texas lawmakers created the Texas Forensics Science Commission six years ago to hear complaints about bad science, bad policy, and other various problems within Texas crime labs. They were brought together to bring some integrity to the labs, ensuring proper justice was meted out.
The ASCLD/LAB is the accreditation agency that Dallas’ lab belongs to. Although they’ve asked administrators about the various complaints, officials from the Dallas County Crime Lab always had an explanation.
In one situation, Nulf alerted officials that the lab was using chemicals that expired more than 3 years prior. When confronted with this information, the lab told the ASCLD/LAB that because the chemicals were only a part of a greater solution being used in the lab, it didn’t matter when it expired. Basically, if the total solution passed quality control, it was fine. Or as DMagazine puts it, “it was using spoiled meat, but the chili still tasted fine.”
Another concern of Nulf’s was the use of a box fan in a room containing blood evidence. The potential for contamination by airborne particles is great. But officials told the ASCLD/LAB that the fan was always pointed away from any evidence and therefore was another non-issue.
Nulf eventually lost his job in May 2009 because he insisted on saying that he used an expired chemical when making notations in the lab logbook. He filed a wrongful termination suit but had to drop the suit because it was filed outside of 7 days following his termination, the deadline per county policy.
Evidence handling procedures must be adhered to strictly. But if procedures are unclear or if lab workers are told different procedures by different supervisors, running a lab that the people can depend on is nearly impossible. Problematic practices can result in the guilty walking free, whether it is on murder charges or sex offenses, and perhaps more troubling, the innocent being convicted.
When you are charged with a criminal offense, it’s the job of your defense lawyer to examine all of the evidence against you. From analyzing how it was collected to how it was handled, your lawyer helps to ensure you get the best results possible on your case.
From TV shows like CSI and Bones, we expect hyper-competent expert scientific crime analysis, but reality falls far short of this standard. These systemic flaws from a lazy, underfunded, and sometimes incompetent system stand in the way of criminal justice.
There is quite a bit of readily available information that calls into question the conclusions of this article, and the reliability of the individual who is the source of the complaints. First, while the the article paints a poor picture of the laboratory, this is the lab that is responsible for the great success of Dallas County in exonerating unjustly convicted individuals. All of the DNA work that resulted in those exonerations was the result of the evidence handling and storage practices of this lab, and there was a recent article in USA Today that pointed out the the practices of the Dallas lab are better than in practically any other lab. Those results would say that the lab is doing a pretty good job. Also, this year, the Dallas District Attorney’s Office campaigned for statewide legislation to bring standards for evidence storage in Texas up to the level practiced in Dallas. They got legislation that improved the situation somewhat – retention of evidence for 40 years – but that is still way less than what is done at this Dallas lab. Second, the article creates the impression that the complaints have not been investigated. However, both a blog written by the author and a blog written by the subject of the article make it clear that the complaints have been extensively investigated by a national accrediting agency that did not agree with the complaints and issued an official report that found in favor of the lab. Nulf’s website includes lots of documents, but interestingly it doesn’t include this report, and that should be a red flag to anyone that there is something in the report that he wants to hide. Also, it is made clear on his website that the laboratory was extensively audited by the accrediting agency just a month or so before he was hired. Clearly, this external review wouldn’t be overlooked/hidden by the article’s author and Nulf if it favored Nulf’s complaints. Another thing that falls out of a review of the documents on Nulf’s website is that he actually testified about his complaints at a criminal appellate hearing, and the court did not find him believable or credible. That isn’t hard to believe if you look at his website which is, well, a bit odd, and definitely not what you would expect from a scientific person. Overall, it would seem to be prudent to not put a lot of faith in this particular article.
Thanks for that alternative viewpoint.
No doubt there is another side to the story, but there still seems to be a disturbing trend about serious questions with crime lab procedures nationwide, including Ohio and Indiana.
The trend is disturbing, and shakes the public confidence in criminal evidence procedures.
If only the anoymous “e.b.” knew what he/she were talking about. The following statements come directly from the August 2009 response Report from SWIFS.
“…The trainee correctly notes that in the protocol for performing microscopic examination of sexual assault kit smears, the category for estimating the approximate number of spermatozoa on smears does not include the range of 8-14 spermatozoa…In the revised protocol (effective 2/13/209) the category now covers the ranges of 1-10 (Rare) and 11-20 (Occasional)…”
“…The Trainee is correct that the practice of the laboratory regarding storage of swabs from autopsy sexual assault kits differs from the guidance given in the manual…The manual was subsequently revised to reflect this practice in February 2009 as part of a broader revision of the manual…”
“…The Serology Procedures Manual specifies that condoms should be stored in a freezer until analysis…The Institute is in agreement with the Trainee that the manual requires updating to reflect the practices of the laboratory…”
“…The Trainee is of the opinion that a statement in one of the serology protocols that describes the placement of an “Item Stored” label on the packaging of evidence items that have been stored does not reflect current practice…The Committee agreed that the practice of placing an item stored sticker was not current and that the manual needed to be revised to remove this…”
“…The Institute agrees with the Trainee that certain retired procedures can be removed from the Serology Procedures Manual…”
Why did he accreditation agency ASCLD/LAB NOT discover these violations during their audits? Does the Dallas County DA not care that lab analysts were not following protocols as written?
There IS much more information. “e.b.” just failed to read or comprehend it.