U.S. Attorney: "Significant Errors" made at D.C.'s DNA Lab

The U.S. Attorney's office has stopped sending new DNA cases to the district's crime lab after officials say serious errors were discovered in the analysis of results.

Two audits are underway while outside experts re-examine work that's already been done in more than one hundred cases.

DNA analysis has become a vital tool in solving all manner of crimes from homicides to rapes to simple gun possession cases.

But last summer, an outside expert working with the U.S. Attorney's office says he discovered errors in the analysis of DNA recovered in a pair of home invasions. Analysis, that was conducted at the district's department of forensic sciences - otherwise known as the crime lab.

Additional outside experts were consulted and by early January the U.S. Attorney's office started shipping its cases to other labs.

In a D.C. City Council hearing chaired by Kenyan McDuffie, lab director Max Houck was asked Thursday about the issue and his understanding of the U.S. Attorneys concerns.

"To our knowledge the primary concern is how we are analyzing complex mixtures", said Houck.

For example, a crime scene technician who wants to find out whose hands have been on the handle of a knife will simply take a cotton swab and rub it over the handle.

It's then boxed up and sent to the lab where a lab technician determines if it contains any d-n-a. the dispute comes in when the lab finds the d-n-a of two or more people".

During questioning Thursday, McDuffie, the chair of the public safety committee asked director Houck for a deeper assessment of the problem.

"You have characterized it as a matter of science", said McDuffie, "is it an issue of internal protocols or policies or is it a quality of staff in the analysis or both? i think it comes down to individual expertise", said Houck, "and assumptions made in the genetic data".

But U.S. Attorney Ron Machen was a bit more critical telling FOX 5 in a statement: "There have been significant errors in their analysis and we have got to get this right. We don't want another Donald Gates or Kirk Odom. We don't want another wrongful conviction".

The U.S. Attorney's office points out in one case--involving DNA on the magazine of a gun the crime labs analysis was false.

Concluding a person's DNA was on the magazine when it says it was not.

In an interview following the hearing McDuffie said, "I think the public wants to know when someone is convicted based on analysis performed by the department of forensic sciences--that it's accurate and it's fair and it's just and that's ultimately what I want as well".

We talked to Director Houck as well who said he sees this as a national issue and hopes its resolved soon.

"I don't see any reason why we can't come to an agreement on this, as I mentioned in my testimony the issue is the method and the application of the method and its vague and this has been simmering in the forensic community for quite some time and it's just now starting to poke its head up".

In the meantime the U.S. Attorney's office is only using the lab for firearms and fingerprint analysis.