Crime Lab Tech Tampers With Evidence in Oregon—but It’s a Nationwide Problem

Similar scandals have occurred in 20 states over the last decade.

(Photo: Bryan Chan/Getty Images)

Sep 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Skimming a little off the top usually evokes fattening your own wallet in a business deal, but if you work in a crime lab, something else entirely is at stake. A forensic analyst at a state police crime lab in Bend, Oregon, is under investigation for allegedly “skimming drugs” from controlled substance tests that were tied to nearly 1,000 drug-related cases going back to 2007.

The idea of a state employee getting high off the spoils of police work might seem funny at first, but tampering with evidence can mean the difference between a suspect walking free or going to prison. When evidence in a case is tampered with in any way, a verdict based on that evidence can be called into question, cuing a cascade of appeals and retrials.

Oregon’s latest scandal isn’t an anomaly: In the last three years, incidents of theft, tampering, and false testimony based on bad forensic evidence have been revealed in crime labs in Massachusetts, Delaware, and Florida. Similar evidence-tampering scandals have occurred in at least 20 states over the last decade. In April, even the FBI admitted that one of its forensic units had offered flawed testimony based on bad science in 95 percent of its cases over more than two decades. Thirty-two defendants impacted by the bad forensic analysis were sentenced to death.

“We need crime labs, and we need them to do a good job—to avoid wrongful convictions but also for our victims,” Aliza Kaplan, cofounder of the Oregon Innocence Project and a law professor at Lewis & Clark College, told TakePart. “We need to be sure that the right people are going to jail.”

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Evidence from cases in counties throughout Oregon were referred to the lab in Bend where the analyst worked before she was placed on administrative leave, expanding the reach of her alleged tampering. The analyst’s name has not yet been released to the public.

“This is fraud on a massive scale,” Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel told KTVZ.com. “I’m looking through all the police reports, all the evidence, every piece of evidence that she has analyzed, and we have to determine if her [being] involved in the case might have compromised the verdict.”

In Massachusetts, a forensic lab chemist who deliberately manipulated results in tens of thousands of drug cases received a three- to five-year prison sentence.

In light of the many cases the analyst handled, the Oregon Innocence Project has called for an independent investigation into the lab and is working with state officials to review other cases analyzed by an Oregon State Police lab. Though unrelated to the lab in Bend, the situation suggests a troubling pattern, according to Kaplan.

Only one crime lab in the country is overseen and operated by an independent board. After a series of investigations into the work of the Houston Police Department’s crime lab revealed unqualified staff and widespread evidence tampering, an independent lab was opened in 2005. While Kaplan concedes that “strong research and rigorous science can happen anywhere”—including in a lab operated by the state—Houston’s model is ideal.

Lists of affected cases were distributed to prosecutors in the Oregon counties where they were tried this week; all the evidence will have to be retested.

“Every taxpayer in every state should care, because our one problem here will end up costing taxpayers thousands of dollars,” Kaplan said. “It’s in everyone’s interest to get this right.”