This is the second in a three-part series on lab accreditation, analyst certification, and ISO-compliant lab procedures by Ryan Niland.
Several major organizations offer accreditation services for forensic labs in the United States. The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) is by far the largest accrediting body for forensic labs, followed by Forensic Quality Services (FQS), the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), and the American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT).
Labs seeking accreditation generally start the process by performing an internal organizational audit. If the lab believes that its policies, procedures, equipment, and other characteristics conform to the required standards, the lab submits a report to the accrediting body. The accrediting body then sends a team of external examiners to confirm the internal audit’s findings. The examiners use a checklist to ensure that the lab’s policies and procedures meet the accrediting body’s requirements, and may also review analysts’ case files for consistency with the requirements. The lab is given an opportunity to respond and correct any deficiencies reported by the examiners before it receives accreditation. The SBI lab’s ASCLD/LAB Inspection Reports can be viewed online here. Accreditation typically lasts for two to five years before the lab must be re-inspected.
In addition to the accreditation offered by the major accrediting bodies, the FBI maintains separate Quality Assurance Standards (QAS) for all labs that participate in the CODIS national DNA database. (Click here to read the specific requirements for these laboratories.) Labs that participate in the database are subject to annual audits, and the North Carolina State Crime Lab’s website contains links to their QAS audit reports (under the heading “DAB Audit Reports”). Appendix A to each report contains a short summary of all problems uncovered by the audit and the lab’s responses, if any. Appendix D to each report details the certifications of the lab’s DNA technicians.
Although courts have assumed previously that work performed in accredited labs is reliable, an increasing body of evidence shows that accreditation provides little assurance that forensic analyses are carried out with sound scientific methodology. Investigators have uncovered failures in at least 28 accredited laboratories since 2005, including mis-identification of fibers, DNA contamination, mix-ups of physical evidence, expired chemicals, and false calibration dates.
One of the most notable of these failures occurred in the NC State Bureau of Investigation’s (SBI) serology lab, where false and misleading lab reports tainted at least 230 cases over a 16-year period. The SBI lab was accredited by ASCLD/LAB five times during this period; none of its inspectors detected the widespread problems with the lab’s policies and procedures.
Similar failures have been reported in other accredited labs. ASCLD/LAB re-accredited the US Army Criminal Investigation Command in 2006 even after learning that the lab provided inadequate supervision to a DNA analyst who falsified reports, cut corners, and found DNA in samples where none existed. ASCLD/LAB accredited San Francisco’s crime lab in 2005, only to have the lab shut down when it was discovered that an analyst had been stealing drugs from the lab. External audits revealed heavy case loads for lab workers and that technicians were having trouble maintaining the chain of custody for evidence.
Several factors may help explain the failure of ASCLD/LAB and other accrediting agencies to detect major deficiencies in forensic labs. First, examiners review a very small number of cases—typically five per analyst—to confirm compliance, and the cases are selected by supervisors rather than chosen at random. Additionally, examination teams consist of forensic analysts from other labs, so there is some concern that these individuals may be reluctant to report problems for fear of reprisals against their own labs when they are audited. Although ASCLD/LAB accepts complaints, investigations into these issues are kept confidential. Finally, labs are given advance notice of when accreditation inspections will occur, rather than being subjected to surprise inspections.
Part 3 of this series will explain ISO accreditation for forensic labs. Part 1 of this series is available here.