Over 800 rape cases are being reexamined for DNA after a lab technician in the New York City medical examiner’s office was found to have mishandled evidence. So far, the review has uncovered 26 cases where DNA evidence was detected after the technician claimed none was present.
The technician had two responsibilities when processing rape kits: She had to snip cuttings from swabs taken from victims’ bodies and place them in test tubes for DNA analysis by more experienced lab workers.
She also inspected the victims’ clothing, usually underwear, for stains that might indicate DNA. Sometimes she overlooked stains, the review found. At other times, she identified stains, but then botched the chemical test used to detect semen and reported finding nothing.
The review was undertaken when the technician in question, who worked in the office for nine years, enrolled in classes to become a DNA analyst and her supervisors kept having to correct deficiencies in her work.
In the course of reviewing the technician’s work, supervisors discovered another problem. Sixteen pieces of evidence, generally swabs sealed in paper envelopes, were found in the wrong rape kit, commingling DNA evidence from 19 rape investigations…
The review will ultimately include 843 cases, but so far only 412 have been re-examined. That is a 6.31% error rate at this point, far too high for something supposedly as precise as DNA analysis.
In seven of the 26 cases, the review led to the assembly of an entire DNA profile and one case led to an indictment a decade after the rape occurred.
The office handles 1,500 rape cases a year and employs 48 technicians. According to its website, the Department of Forensic Biology within the ME’s office handles evidence from both living and deceased persons and presumably crime scenes as well.
At this point, all of the technician’s errors resulted in false negatives, not false positives, and no one was wrongfully convicted as a result, at least according to the director of Forensic Biology at the office.
This is obviously a massive problem. The errors this person made have not only made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to solve a far-too-large number of rapes, but has called into question the reputation and findings of the entire ME office.
There is no word yet on any civil suits that have surfaced as a result of this issue, but I imagine many of the victims whose cases were mishandled will at least entertain the thought.
While it would be easy to pin this solely on the technician in question, I have to wonder about the supervision within the office and whether this is more of a systemic issue than we realize right now. Humans are and always will be human and we all make mistakes, which is why supervision, either by a peer or a superior, is so important.
It also serves as a reminder that technicians often have the most critical duties in a laboratory, and the importance of their work should never be underestimated.
The New York City medical examiner’s office is undertaking an unusual review of more than 800 rape cases in which critical DNA evidence may have been mishandled or overlooked by a lab technician, resulting in incorrect reports being given to criminal investigators.
Supervisors have so far found 26 cases in which the technician failed to detect biological evidence when some actually existed, according to the medical examiner’s office. In seven of those cases, full DNA profiles were developed — in some instances, evidence that sex-crime investigators did not see for years, hampering their ability to develop cases against rape suspects.
In one of those instances, the newly discovered DNA profile matched a convicted offender’s sample, leading to an indictment a decade after the evidence was collected, according to Dr. Mechthild Prinz, the director of forensic biology at the medical examiner’s office.
In two other instances, the new DNA profiles were linked to people either already convicted or under suspicion.
The scope of the problem has yet to be determined; at several points over nearly two years, supervisors in the medical examiner’s office thought they had gotten to the bottom of the technician’s errors, only to find that the trail went further.
“This is the first time we’ve had anything like this,” said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the office of the chief medical examiner.
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