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    Boston Globe: State hits crime lab on DNA cache

    “The [Massachusetts] State Police crime laboratory is storing the DNA profiles of hundreds of people whose crimes do not warrant it, according to an investigation of the historically troubled lab, raising the specter of what one civil libertarian called a ‘shadow DNA database,'” reports the Boston Globe. In a report (pdf) released yesterday, Massachusetts Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan revealed that the state crime lab was keeping DNA data that it had (as required by law) deleted from the national database.

    (The FBI maintains a national DNA database known as the Combined DNA Indexing System (“CODIS”). The CODIS program allows federal, state, and local, and certain international crime laboratories to collect, exchange and compare DNA profiles electronically. As of December 2008, the DNA Index System “contains over 6,539,919 offender profiles and 248,943 forensic profiles,” the FBI says.)

    From the Inspector General’s report:

    Another critical issue is the Laboratory’s policy and practice of retaining and storing DNA profile records and personal identifiers that have been properly removed from the CODIS database and maintaining them in a separate, searchable database. […]

    The existence of this database was confirmed in several interviews. However, this office found no legal authority for maintaining these DNA profiles in a searchable database.

    It is not clear whether Laboratory management has ever requested legal guidance regarding the existence and/or use of this database.  When asked, no one interviewed produced any written legal opinion from legal counsel.

    There are numerous questions about this extra DNA database kept by the Massachusetts crime lab. What are the rules concerning access to and use of the DNA profiles in this secret database? What privacy and civil liberty protections are in place?

    John A. Grossman, undersecretary of forensic science and technology for the state, told the Boston Globe that “the database is not easily searched and that the lab director has never authorized employees to examine them to see if they match DNA found at crime scenes.” But if the database is not being used, then why is the data being kept? Are public safety and security funds being diverted to pay for the creation and maintenance of this database that, according to the state, is not being used for crime detection?

    Another problem identified by the Inspector General is the lab’s “lack of a current database of DNA profiles of Forensic Biology and DNA employees,” which is necessary because the employee profiles are necessary “for identifying potential contamination of case evidence samples by staff.” The Inspector General also noted that, “Some individual employees however, are opposed to having this critical resource. There is a trust issue embedded in their reluctance to participate.” This is a significant problem, because, “If contamination occurs, and it will, the Laboratory will spend unnecessary time troubleshooting the event without benefit of Laboratory staff profiles.”

    Quality and efficacy questions have plagued the Massachusetts State Police crime laboratory. In 2007, there was a scandal over the mishandling of DNA evidence in the crime lab. The Boston Globe reported, “[One lab employee] told law enforcement officials too late about 13 positive DNA matches in unsolved sexual assault cases dating as far back as the late 1980s, and the statute of limitations ran out.” The same employee allegedly reported two near matches of DNA profiles of convicted felons and crime scene DNA “incorrectly as perfect matches to law enforcement officials.”

    Other notable scandals concerning DNA and law enforcement: Carelessness in DNA evidence processing in Maryland crime labs, and DNA errors led to Australian police re-opening 7,000 cases.

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