by Aram James
A compromised crime lab might be more endemic than an exception, and according to defense attorney Aram James, points to a larger flaw in the mechanics of the criminal justice system.
Recent revelations of a compromised crime lab in San Francisco has brought scrutiny and criticism to the San Francisco Police Department and District Attorney’s office. Investigations by oversight agencies as well as the media have shown that the lab had mixed up DNA sample, concealed criticisms from the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, and had insufficient security – with doors to the facility being left open, leaving DNA potentially exposed to contamination, opening up challenges to the evidentiary chain of custody and a variety of other attacks on its scientific reliability.
But while all attention might be focused on the inadequacies of one crime lab, the problems found at the San Francisco lab should be prompting counties and cities across the country to examine their own crime labs, and challenge a more fundamental flaw in our system – the acceptance of prosecutors’ “science” as truth.
As a former public defender of 25 years, and having observed criminal cases across the country, I strongly suspect that crimes labs all over this state and country are equally as bad, if not worse, than the San Francisco Crime Lab, as depicted in the recent San Francisco Weekly’s cover story entitled “Missing Links.
”The exposé should be a call to action by the community at large impacted by the criminal justice system to become more aware about how the state/prosecution routinely attempts to get over on our communities with junk science — from phony gang experts, to pseudo drug experts, to drugs that haven’t been tested or adequately challenged by the defense, to bad DNA results.
What the public often does not see is the process leading up to the presentation of evidence before it hits the courtroom, and the surprising non-existent standards required. A rookie cop, just out of the police academy, instantly becomes the expert of choice, on the cheap, for the convenience of the District Attorney and courts on issues as wide-ranging as what constitutes possession for sale, to what constitutes usable quantity, to who is a gang member versus someone who simply wears the youth fashions of the day.It’s not just the prosecution and police that have gotten over on us. I put equal blame and responsibility for this mess of a criminal justice system on the often impotent, by choice, defense bar for frequently and systemically failing to take on this bad/junk/fraudulent science and/or for failing to call defense experts to rebut the steady stream of junk science put on by the prosecution in this county, state, and country.
We should never have our community members stipulate (agree to) to drug results and or any other forms of so-called scientific evidence. A community that cares in the proper defense of a defendant, and the attorneys that represent them, need to force the prosecution to prove every link in the chain of the evidence (including the reliability and integrity of their so-called infallible science), if they want to convict our clients.Too often (in fact almost without exception), I have seen defense attorneys stipulate that the substance the police have seized from our clients’ person, cars, homes, etc., is the drug or contraband the police claim it is — without putting the prosecution and their labs through their hoops and forcing the state to prove — through good science — that the contraband is what they claim it is.Part of the mentality I have observed — up close and personal in the courtroom as a public defender — is defense attorneys stipulating away their clients’ rights for their (the attorney’s) convenience. Or they simply do not want to be perceived as rocking the boat in the courtroom — all to the extreme detriment of the client and their families.
The public defender administrators who allow their line attorneys to commit this crime against our communities basic due process rights must be called to account.You can be sure if it were the loved ones of these attorneys/administrators facing the same criminal injustice system there would be no stipulations to the state’s tests/evidence. And you can be sure that no expense would be spared to fight off the prosecution’s case/evidence and routine practice of overcharging our clients in hopes of extracting a forced plea bargain.
Our communities will accept nothing less than the same measure of due process and equal protection that the lawyers would demand if it were their life and liberty on the line.Going forward, communities and advocates interested in bringing integrity to the criminal justice system must insist on touring our crime labs with our public servants/district attorneys so we can become conversant with the language of their legitimate scientific evidence. But we must be equally aware of where the system/crime labs have failed us, and as a result, imprisoned us unjustly. Knowledge is power, and now it is incumbent on us to obtain that knowledge.As the court system collapses under its own weight, exacerbated by a lack of resources, we need to put the pressure on by forcing the prosecution to prove their cases, no matter how expensive and system draining the tests/labs and trials are to the state.
If the community demands the tests (and demands that our attorneys demand the tests), the experts, and all the other rights that our clients are rightfully entitled to, we will start to see that the system will grudgingly give our clients the justice they deserve. Not because the system wants to, but because once we know our rights, they literally can no longer afford to prosecute our clients for the charges and prison sentences we have for too long assumed and taken for granted that we could not challenge.
Now that the rabbit is out of the hat, it’s time we take back our criminal justice system.
Aram James is a retired Santa Clara County Public Defender, and co-founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug’s Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project.
Image from Silicon Valley De-Bug.