WASHINGTON - Nine months after DNA testing was suspended at the District's independent crime lab, officials said evidence analysis will resume in January following a training and management overhaul.
An audit last April found serious flaws in the way the testing was conducted and Jenifer Smith, the new director of the Department of Forensic Sciences, said she found a lab in turmoil from significant mismanagement.
Smith has been on the job since July when she was appointed to the position by Mayor Muriel Bowser. When we talked to her in September, she was not afraid to criticize the way the lab was initially set up and operating in 2012.
The former FBI special agent said the previous director and management team looked the other way when discrepancies were discovered in some of the testing and were out of touch with the prosecutors and investigators they were supposed to help.
Smith was working as a consultant in the District's $220 million consolidated forensics lab when a national accreditation board found the DNA lab was "not in compliance" with national standards and the staff was using inadequate procedures.
It was a problem first pointed out by experts hired by the U.S. Attorney’s Office who brought its concerns to then-director Max Houck.
"They raised those concerns to the administration within this laboratory and this administration chose to ignore that,” said Smith. “They concluded it was just a difference of opinion of experts, when in fact we now know better.”
Dr. Smith, who at one time was the FBI’s DNA unit chief, said she found a demoralized staff who didn't know their work was being criticized by experts at the highest levels.
"Some of this work effort that these analysts were doing, instead of running DNA tests, they were keeping spreadsheets on statistics,” she said. “So instead of doing the work that they really should have been doing, they were doing other kind of housekeeping duties. They got behind, and then at some point in time, I think the backlog just built up to a point of where they sort of lost hope.”
Smith said when the lab first opened, it began accepting evidence without a modern tracking system, which led to serious problems with the prosecutors and investigators the lab was there to serve.
“To open a laboratory under these conditions without that kind of system will lead to these kind of problems that they had,” said Dr. Smith. “Which is they couldn’t find their evidence in a reliable time. They couldn't answer questions the clients had.”
When the crime lab first opened, sources familiar with the way it was managed said that the DNA lab was swamped. Evidence submissions shot up 300 percent.
The police wanted guns tested for DNA and they were sending over a hundred a month and the lab could not keep up.
At times, there were just four out of 12 DNA lab technicians working at any given time in a mostly female unit. Many of them out on maternity leave.
Houck, the former director, declined to comment for this story. He resigned last April after the highly critical audit was released.
"At the end of the day, this is really a good news story for the entire forensic DNA community,” said Smith. “This is a story about how you can be sort of unaware of not knowing what you are doing wrong, find out, have it exposed in a very public way, but really dig in and fix it correctly.”
A spokesperson for the lab said the staff has recently gone through extensive training and testing on new state-of-the-art DNA software. They are looking forward to getting back to work next month.
In September, Mayor Bowser gave Smith and the consolidated forensics lab $8 million to hire new crime scene science staff and to reduce backlog.
Because of the lab’s collapse, the District has had to send its evidence to three different private labs and ask for help from public labs in Los Angeles and New York.