Prosecutors and police officers call it the CSI effect: The unrealistic portrayal of crime labs on television shows has jurors expecting experts to testify about matching DNA, hair, fiber or blood samples.
But what happens when the crime-lab expert is a fraud? Or the science is shaky?
That is the case with two Ohio forensic experts who doctored their resumes, which resulted in tainted convictions. The stories of those convicted with questionable scientific testimony – including a Newark nurse who served two decades in prison and a Cincinnati man sentenced to Death Row – speak to a need for greater accountability by those who oversee crime labs.
No one’s life or liberty should be put at risk by lies or incompetence.
Franklin County Coroner Jan Gorniak has aimed to professionalize her office. When she took over in 2009, she initiated criminal-background checks for new employees. “It hadn’t been done before,” she said.
Her office is small, so she says determining whether someone is lying about his or her education is fairly easy. Employees hang their degrees on the walls. But in larger offices, people have gotten away with embellished resumes and lies.
Take the case of James Ferguson, chief toxicologist from 1977 to 2003 for the Franklin County Coroner’s Office, which performed work for Newark. He lied about when he earned his degree from Ohio State University, having flunked basic biochemistry courses. Ferguson claimed he’d graduated in 1972, but actually didn’t get his degree until 1988. That lie, discovered only recently, undermined his credibility as a witness in old cases.
This led to last year’s release of Virginia LeFever, the Newark nurse and young mother imprisoned in 1990 for the drug overdose of her husband. Ferguson’s testimony was key to making a case for homicide.
Revelations about his deceptive testimony also led to the March release of a woman in prison since 1993 for her boyfriend’s supposed poisoning. Now, two others say their manslaughter convictions should be thrown out, claiming Ferguson’s science was questionable.
In another example, a former Hamilton County forensic pathologist was fired last year from his new job as the chief medical examiner of El Paso County. Word had reached Texas that the Ohio Parole Board and governor granted clemency to a man slated to be executed upon learning the doctor had lied about his credentials and botched evidence.
Dr. Paul Shrode said he had a law degree. He did not. He said he’d passed forensic-pathology board certification exams. He did not.
Other lab lapses are infamous: The Los Angeles County Police Department crime lab spent millions of dollars on fixes after it mishandled evidence, notably tainting the famed “bloody glove” in the O.J. Simpson murder case.
And in the 1990s, Agent Fred Whitehurst blew the whistle on scientific misconduct at the FBI crime lab, which he accused of mishandling evidence in key cases, including the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings. Major reforms followed.
As jurors become more demanding and the science makes it more difficult to challenge guilt, defense attorneys increasingly focus on discrediting the crime-lab expert. That has always been “the game,” Gorniak said. “They’re going to try to find something, and we expect that.”
But, testifying experts shouldn’t make the defense attorneys’ jobs so easy.