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California and other crime labs - It's not "Law and Order"

Californians who watch television crime shows might be led to believe that state and federal crime labs are state of the art facilities with forensic scientists who quickly process evidence. The reality is crime labs are generally underfunded with backlogs as long as nine months or more. There are no uniform requirements for forensic lab technicians and many jurisdictions don't require any kind of certification. Defendants who find themselves in conflict with the findings of a crime lab may benefit from a criminal defense attorney.

A case in the office of the New York City Medical Examiner shows just how serious these problems can become. Authorities are now reviewing over 800 rape cases because of possible mishandled evidence by a technician. So far, evidence of incompetence has been discovered in 26 cases. This raises the issue of cross-contamination, meaning that DNA from one individual might be matched in error with an innocent party.

Boston had a similar problem last year. A chemist allegedly mishandled thousands of narcotic samples. She was praised for her speed and it turned out she often didn't even utilize a microscope. A microscope is required when confirming whether a specimen is cocaine. Well over 30,000 cases are now being reviewed in that lab and over 1,100 convictions have already been overturned.

Crime labs are often overburdened with work. If the evidence against a defendant has to go to a crime lab, a criminal defense attorney might be able to assist to ensure the evidence was handled properly and that all evidence procedures were followed. If the evidence wasn't handled in a proper manner by competent forensic technicians, it may be possible to have the charges dismissed or a conviction overturned.

Source: Slate, "The Unsettling, Underregulated World of Crime Labs," Justin Peters, Jan. 14, 2013

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