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Broad implications of the Colorado crime lab scandal

Last spring, the integrity of the Colorado criminal justice system was called into question after hundreds of human blood and tissue samples were handled improperly by a state crime lab employee. Last month, it became clear that thousands of additional samples may have been affected in a new state crime lab scandal.

When the integrity of a state’s criminal defense system is called into question, every element of the process can be affected. If the state crime lab’s procedures are affecting the evidence used to prosecute individuals, then the public begins wondering what other areas of the process need reexamining.

In the case of the latest scandal, defense attorneys have asserted that state crime lab employees exhibited bias against accused persons and that storage and training procedures are flawed and inadequate. As a result, an untold number of accused and convicted persons could be ultimately affected by this scandal. Of particular concern is the idea that tainted or improperly stored evidence could have led to wrongful convictions.

A report released last month questions the state crime lab’s reliability. In particular, charges of understaffing, inadequate training, tampering risks, evidence storage vulnerabilities and pressure to present relatively inexperienced workers as experts have thrown the system into chaos for the second time in two years.

In a just society, accused persons must be ensured both equal protection and due process. The newest Colorado crime lab controversy potentially affects residents’ access to both of these fundamental protections. It is time for regulators to prioritize the integrity of the state’s crime lab for the benefit of all.

Source: New York Times, “Colorado State Lab Accused of Mishandling Evidence,” Jack Healy, June 10, 2013

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