Monday, September 13, 2010

Crime Labs Work Best When There's Equal Access

North Carolina has become the latest state where serious problems have turned up at its state crime lab. As in about six other states, including West Virginia and even the FBI's own crime lab, reports were either done badly, done wrong, deliberately falsified (sometimes in death penalty cases), or withheld from the defense which had a right to them.

As one Tar Heel official pointed out after a scathing report on their lab--justice is expensive and can't be done on the cheap.

Kentucky's own state crime lab has suffered from lack of funds, personnel and facilities; which means our justice system is flawed. Local officials wait weeks or months to get reports on whether drivers or suspects had used drugs in accidents or crime cases, and those might be the simplest of lab reports.

Kentucky ought to invest properly here, or our justice system may be forever flawed. Killing someone because a blood sample was misread, a bullet's rifling was misinterpreted, a drug sample was misplaced; all of which, and more, have happened in other states, should give us concern.

The North Carolina report has already freed an innocent man after 17 years in prison. More will follow.

But the basic problem, as I see it, in Kentucky and elsewhere, is this: crime labs work for prosecutors only; and you and I pay the tab. If the defense needs lab work, they have to pay for it. For justice to serve all of us, (remember we presume the suspect innocent), the defense should have the right to use the public crime lab. This would keep lab personnel on their toes, knowing they report to both sides, not just one.

Could the defense delay a case by making too many requests of an overburdened lab system? Certainly. (Bet some prosecutors have tried this, too.) So there need to be rules, the type of cases limited (certainly death penalty cases should always be allowed) as well as the number and type of requests.

I would hope our justice officials; the Chief Justice, the Attorney-General, Secretary of the Justice Cabinet, KSP commander, and others, would start work right away on a new system to allow the defense access to the crime lab, and start a public awareness campaign on the importance of an adequately supported state crime lab; before what has just happened in North Carolina happens here, and innocent Kentuckians are convicted, or in the worse case, killed.

"I'm Just Sayin'"...

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