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The need to vet forensic science experts

It’s every lab’s worst nightmare.  It’s every prosecutor’s worst nightmare.  It’s every defense attorney’s worst nightmare.  Which can result in every defendant’s worst nightmare.  When a crime lab employee lies about their credentials, the impact reverberates throughout the criminal justice system.  It can result in wrongful convictions.  It can subsequently result in proper convictions being overturned anyway, when the falsehood is discovered.  It needlessly calls into question the integrity of the lab. 

Joseph Kopera.

Annie Dookhan.

It now appears we can add the name Fessessework Guale to the long list of those who falsified their credentials and testified in countless cases involving forensic science.  It appears that for the past 10 years, Dr. Fessessework Guale, a toxicology operations manager at the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, misrepresented her credentials.  According to KHOU, Dr. Guale testified that she had a Master’s of Science degree in Toxicology that she obtained at Oklahoma State University.  While it does appear that Dr. Guale has a masters’ degree, it is in physiological sciences.  Upon discovering the error, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences notified both prosecution and defense attorneys of the problem.

It is distressing that an analyst might feel compelled to commit perjury

More distressing, however, is the apparent failure of the Texas criminal defense bar to vet the resume provided by Dr. Guale in advance of trial.  It takes little to no effort to call a college or university and confirm the credentials of a potential witness.  This is a task that could be relegated to a paralegal or a law clerk.  It is also a task that should be performed in every single case.

It is the duty of the defense to ensure each defendant is afforded due process of law.  Vetting the truthfulness of basic statements regarding education should be one of the easiest tasks, when handling a case involving forensic science of any kind.    

This is not to suggest the prosecution is devoid of all responsibility.  Prosecutors have ethical obligations as well – including an obligation not to suborn perjury.  A failure to inform oneself of an analyst’s deliberate attempts to falsify credentials should not be a defense to eliciting such testimony.  Just as it takes mere minutes for the defense community to contact a university, so, too, the prosecution team should be vetting “their” experts. 

For the system to work as intended, all parties must subject witnesses to intense scrutiny, to assure themselves, and the court, that the proceedings are consistent with due process of law.  Ten years is a very long time, involving an unknown number of defendants.  Jurors weighed the value of the evidence presented, including the credentials of Dr. Guale.  Convictions have been handed down based on falsehoods.  Maybe the truth would have mattered to the jurors.  Maybe not.  We’ll never know.

If nothing else comes of this, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and labs should consider themselves on notice to question and verify the asserted credentials of every analyst in every case.

 

Christine Funk, JD, is a District of Columbia based writer.  She has extensive experience in criminal law and procedure.  She has written and presented on forensic science issues on 3 continents.  Funk has been published by the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and Law; the Journal of the American Association for Justice; the Journal of Forensic Sciences; and Science.  She has also authored chapters in three books; and a publication for the National Institute of Justice.  She enjoys cooking, travel, and writing.



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