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Monday, April 13, 2009

Criminal Crime Labs

Justice Delayed by Shanna Hogan -April 9, 2009

The key piece of evidence used to crack the Baseline Killer case sat in an evidence locker for nine months while seven more people lost their lives.  Sources inside the Phoenix Police department say that's just the crime lab's latest mistake. Sophia Nunez’s eight-year-old son found his mother’s body in the bathtub after returning home from school. She had been shot in the head. Kristin Gibbons’ nearly naked body was found behind a storage shed. Her badly decomposed remains were discovered under a pile of debris. George Chou, a college student, and co-worker Liliana Sanchez-Cabrera were killed after leaving their job at a Yoshi’s fast-food restaurant in Phoenix. Sanchez-Cabrera had just completed her first day on the job. Romelia Vargas and Mirna Palma Roman were both murdered inside their lunch truck while preparing food for the coming day. Vargas left behind six children, and Palma Roman left behind two. Carmen Miranda, a mother of two from Phoenix, was kidnapped from a carwash. Her lifeless body was later found behind a barbershop about 100 yards away. Police say these were the last seven lives taken by the Baseline Killer, one of the most notorious serial killers in state history. From August 2005 to June 2006 the Baseline Killer terrorized Valley streets on a deadly crime spree that included several sexual assaults, kidnappings and robberies, and left nine people dead. Nearly 200 Phoenix police officers and detectives worked on the investigation, following up on thousands of tips and spending millions of dollars in an effort to capture the elusive killer. Now, more than two years after the arrest of the alleged murderer, Mark Goudeau, one of the detectives currently working on the case has come forward with an explosive claim that he says Phoenix police have gone to great lengths to conceal. According to the detective and other Phoenix police insiders, the last seven murders committed by the Baseline Killer could have been prevented if evidence gathered at one of the early crime scenes had been properly processed by the Phoenix crime lab. Documents obtained by The Times support those claims and reveal that the DNA evidence used to crack the case and ultimately identify the suspected killer had been in police possession for nine months prior to his arrest.

This egregious instance is not isolated, and it reflects a much larger problem erupting behind the walls of the Phoenix crime lab, sources say. A massive evidence backlog, lengthy wait times for testing and an increasingly strained relationship between the police department and the lab has jeopardized hundreds of homicide, rape and assault cases, one detective says. Additional sources, including Billy Coleman, a representative for the department’s union, the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, says rather than addressing and correcting the problems, the Phoenix Police Department is ignoring the situation by dismissing complaints from investigators and even going as far as to punish detectives who speak negatively about the lab. “Those people did not deserve to die. I think we could have saved one or as many as seven if we would have just done it right,” an emotional Coleman says, pounding his fist on the desk. “They’ve got blood on the doorsteps of that lab.” In research for this story, The Times interviewed sources inside the Phoenix Police Department and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents including evidence reports, lab audits and e-mails between detectives, lieutenants and the assistant chief of police. The investigation has revealed shocking accusations of misconduct and corruption within the state’s largest police agency.

Two Swabs, Seven Slayings

On the evening of September 20, 2005, while walking in the park near 31st Avenue and Baseline in south Phoenix, two sisters were cornered by a man brandishing a gun. He forced them into the bushes, ordered them to strip and proceeded to sexually assault them. Both of the women survived. It was one of the first crimes in a series of rapes, robberies and murders in the south Phoenix area committed by a suspect who would later become known as the Baseline Killer. During the rape, police say the man licked the younger of the two sister’s breasts and later rubbed dirt on her in an attempt to get rid of his saliva. As part of the investigation, evidence swabs were taken from the sister’s left and right breasts for DNA testing. The two swabs would become critical pieces of evidence in solving the case. A Phoenix police detective working on the Baseline Killer investigation spoke to The Times, and at his request we have agreed to withhold his identity. He will be referred to in this story as the “Baseline Detective.” He says that when the Phoenix crime lab received the two swabs, they made a crucial mistake.

Approximately one month after the rape of the two sisters, the crime lab did a partial analysis of the evidence and determined “cellular material,” in this case saliva, to be present on both of the swabs, according to the evidence processing report obtained by The Times. Yet, according to the report, only one of the swabs, the swab from the right breast, was tested for a DNA profile. “The technician made a judgment call that the left swab had dirt on it, so they wouldn’t do it,” says the Baseline Detective. “On the right swab, only a partial DNA profile was obtained.” The partial match was not enough to identify a suspect. Because the crime lab was expecting new processing technology known as Y-STR testing, a better method for detecting male DNA, the decision was made to wait to test the second swab. Meanwhile, that same Y-STR technology had been in use at the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s crime lab since April 2005—months prior to the rapes, robberies and slayings attributed to the Baseline Killer. It is common lab practice to send out evidence to other labs for processing, and DPS provides the scientific analysis of evidence for nearly every law-enforcement agency in the state, including Phoenix, which outsourced $250,000 worth of lab work in 2007. But in this case, the Phoenix Police Department chose to hold onto the swabs, and delay testing them. “Phoenix police wanted the glory of breaking the case, so they sat on the evidence,” says the Baseline Detective. “Meanwhile, the Baseline Killer remained on the streets, and seven people died.”

For the next nine months, while law-enforcement officials remained confounded by the killer’s violent crimes and their seemingly random pattern, the swabs sat in an evidence locker. It was a particularly tense time in the Valley: Not only were the Baseline Killer’s number of victims mounting, but two “serial shooters” were also carrying out random attacks.  For the investigation into the Baseline Killer attacks, Phoenix police assembled an all-star team of detectives and formed a special task force. Billboards across the Valley went up featuring a composite sketch of a dark-skinned man with a soft mustache and dreadlocks, wearing a fisherman’s hat.

Months passed, and despite all the time and resources being spent on identifying the killer, police were no closer to cracking the case. Meanwhile, the Phoenix crime lab was still waiting to become Y-STR testing equipped, and the second swab had yet to be tested. In June 2006, after the ninth slaying attributed to the Baseline Killer, Phoenix police finally decided to ask DPS to examine evidence collected from several of the crime scenes. Among the evidence processed by DPS were the two swabs taken from the sexual assault of the two sisters nine months earlier, confirms Todd Griffith, superintendent of the DPS crime lab. “That was a situation where we had some newer DNA technology available that the city of Phoenix did not have, therefore we were able to obtain results and identify the Baseline Killer,” he says. “We did it very quickly because of the nature of the case.” Not only was DNA found on the untested left breast swab, it was also found on the right breast swab—the same swab from which the Phoenix crime lab only obtained a partial match, says the Baseline Detective.

The DNA profile was then put into CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, which contains DNA profiles from convicted offenders across the country. A match was returned linking the crime to Mark Goudeau, a 44-year-old ex-convict who had previously served 13 years in prison for aggravated assault, armed robbery and kidnapping. “We got the profile out of the sample that was submitted and were able to get a hit on CODIS and identify him,” says Griffith. “They, at that time, did not have a viable suspect. He was in a larger pool of potential suspects, but they really didn’t have him identified.” Phoenix Police Department Assistant Chief Andy Anderson would not comment on why the crime lab waited to send the swabs to DPS, but he did say the evidence was handled appropriately.  “They followed protocol. They didn’t do anything different in that case than they do in any other case,” he says. In December 2006, Phoenix police formally charged Goudeau with all of the Baseline Killer crimes, including 15 sexual assaults, 11 kidnappings and nine murders. Late last year, Goudeau was convicted on 19 counts for the sexual assault of the sisters in the park and was sentenced to 438 years in prison. Goudeau’s trial on murder charges is currently pending.

After the arrest, Phoenix police were lauded for having solved the Baseline Killer case. Meanwhile, the Baseline Detective claims, seven families mourned the loss of their loved ones, never knowing that those deaths could have been prevented. “If the crime lab would have done what they were supposed to do, Mark Goudeau would have been arrested in December 2005,” the Baseline Detective says. Coleman says the lab’s blunder was swept under the rug by Phoenix police to avoid a “black eye” on the department and potential lawsuits from the victims’ families. The public was never meant to find out about the crime lab’s mistake, and the department has gone to great lengths to cover it up, Coleman says. Detectives in the know have been ordered, intimidated and even threatened to stay quiet about the incident, he says. Despite fear of retribution, the Baseline Detective and Coleman have come forward. “I believe there is a cover-up,” Coleman says. “I believe that the lab is screwing up, and instead of fixing the lab, we’re just going to put a band-aid on it. We’re going to intimidate people. We’re going to keep our internal employees quiet.” Additionally, he says, mishandling of the Goudeau evidence is just one example of a much larger problem in the lab. “They are making mistakes,” Coleman says. “Anything coming through that crime lab is resulting in justice delayed.”

Crime Lab Problems

The new, $34 million publicly funded Phoenix crime lab was designed to be a state-of-the-art facility built in part to relieve the growing backlog of untested evidence and move cases through the judicial system more efficiently. However, due to understaffing and other lab deficiencies, the substantial backlog continues to be a problem in Phoenix, causing lengthy delays for processing and resulting in unidentified criminals roaming the streets, Coleman says. Even now, it can take three months for the Phoenix lab to send a DNA analysis back when a suspect is in custody – and up to a year if the case is not a priority. “It’s an issue with every lab in the nation,” says Assistant Chief Anderson. “Technology is moving forward very rapidly… and the reality is we have limited resources.” The crime lab has 123 analysts and 35 vacant positions.

A 2007 independent audit performed at the request of the Phoenix crime lab’s Forensic Biology Department cited several issues with the lab including errors, lack of confidence in technology and a bulging backlog of 27,000 to 36,000 items. Comparatively, the backlog at the DPS crime lab is about one-third as large as that of the Phoenix crime lab while the DPS lab worked on about 17,000 more cases for agencies across the state in 2007. Lengthy wait times for testing are an issue at most crime labs across the country, including at the DPS Lab, where processing can take several months. “In certain circumstances we can have very, very short turnaround times,” says Griffith, of the DPS crime lab. “A DNA case can take a few weeks to several months, depending on the complexity. It’s very time consuming and (testing) DNA is a very complex and difficult process.” Still, Coleman says the problem is more pronounced in Phoenix. He added that he knows of some cases when either the Phoenix crime lab did not analyze all items submitted or canceled the request altogether, even if the case was still pending.

According to the audit report, the Phoenix crime lab is typically unable to meet the legal requirements to complete forensic analysis within 45 days on certain cases and routinely sends out letters requesting six-month extensions, which has resulted in a contentious relationship between police investigators and the lab. “With a case turn round time of approximately three months and a growing backlog, the Forensic Biology Unit recognizes that their relationship with detectives and district attorneys is becoming increasingly strained,” the report states. In order to effectively solve crimes, Griffith says, it’s important for lab specialists to collaborate with detectives and county attorneys. At most publicly funded labs this is accomplished through regular “case evaluation meetings” where detectives and technicians meet to decide which evidence will be processed to support a case. At DPS, a consensus between the agencies is normally reached without issue, Griffith says. “I think everybody’s objective is to do the same thing, which is to identify the items which are important, and which will answer the questions about the crime,” he says. “We usually always agree on what needs to be done initially, and then it’s not uncommon to come back as additional information comes up.”

In Phoenix, however, the relationship between detectives and lab technicians has become adversarial, says Ken Crane, a representative with the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. Part of the issue, he says, is that in an attempt to minimize the growing evidence backlog, crime-lab specialists have begun to dictate to investigators which pieces of evidence will be tested. “You’ve got a reverse hierarchy,” Crane says. “The civilian employees of the lab are empowered, and are being allowed by upper-level police management, to tell detectives and county attorneys, no, we aren’t doing that.” Anderson acknowledges that a few detectives have complained about operations at the lab, but he says these incidents are rare.  “I think, for the most part, the majority of interactions between the investigative unit and the lab unit is very positive,” he says. “We’ve done some very large cases, and the lab has played a vital role in those cases. We’ve been successful because of the work that the lab, and the personnel in that lab, have done, and because of the collaboration between the detectives, the lab and the county attorney.” However, Coleman says mistakes and delays in processing evidence are resulting in unsolved crimes and wrongful convictions.

In 2003, it was discovered that Phoenix crime-lab technicians blundered the analysis of DNA that linked suspects to crimes in nine criminal cases, including a homicide case that brought a conviction and two other investigations in which suspects pleaded guilty. Coleman says in a more recent case involving a homicide victim killed by a knife, the murder weapon was submitted to the lab for testing, but after more than one year has still not yet been analyzed and the killer remains at large. And documents show that just two months ago the Phoenix crime-lab supervisor cancelled evidence requests on an ongoing death-penalty case without notifying the detective assigned to the case. “It’s not just homicide that has a problem with the lab… you have instance after instance after instance,” Coleman says. “The detectives are telling me it’s getting worse, not better.”

Supressing Complaints?

The problems in the Phoenix crime lab are becoming an increasing source of frustration for Phoenix police detectives, Coleman says. E-mails obtained by The Times show at least four detectives have expressed concern about the lab. “It is my opinion that the direction this unit is going in is wrong,” seasoned homicide detective Joe Petrosino wrote in an e-mail to Lieutenant Joe Knott. “A big part of what is wrong lives across the street in the crime lab.” Petrosino went on to caution about the potential consequences of ignoring the problem. “While I understand you are trying to keep a lid on this issue. I believe you are only putting off what will become a major issue in court and then in the media,” he wrote. Another detective, Kenny Porter, wrote in a memo to Lieutenant Knott: “As I understand it the Phoenix police crime lab was and should be an investigative support and assistance to the Phoenix Police Department… somewhere along the way those who are not responsible for the murder investigation at any level began to dictate how a murder investigation will be completed.” Rather than addressing these issues, Coleman says, police officials have attempted to silence detectives who have criticized the lab.

One detective was even removed from homicide and later placed on administrative leave after making repeated complaints about the lab. David Barnes was a 13-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department and was once considered one of the top homicide detectives in Phoenix. The cases he investigated had an above-average clearance rate, and he consistently received positive monthly and annual performance evaluations. In one evaluation a former supervisor wrote, “Your work performance and the dedication you show to your victims is something others should learn by.” Barnes was also one of the most vocal critics of the Phoenix crime lab. Documents show that in several instances, Barnes sent e-mails and spoke to his supervisors about cases where the lab either chose not to test or delayed testing key pieces of evidence. In one instance, a death-penalty case involving the murder of a 17-year-old boy, Barnes complained the evidence the crime lab originally agreed to test was cancelled eight months later without his notification. E-mails also show that department officials threatened to retaliate. “Dave Barnes is a repeat offender and it is my hope that his specific conduct be addressed formally, rather than informally,” wrote Assistant Chief Tracy Montgomery in an e-mail obtained by The Times dated Oct. 16, 2007. “Mark my words, if Dave is dealt with, others will think twice about lab bashing.” A few months later, while investigating a case in which a woman had hit and killed her husband with a truck, Barnes had another disagreement with lab technicians. At the crime scene, blood swabs were taken from the hood and undercarriage of the truck and submitted to the lab for testing. During the case-evaluation meeting, Barnes argued that to prove the victim was intentionally hit head-on, 14 swabs needed to be processed; the lab wanted to test only three. When they couldn’t agree, Barnes left the meeting and sent an e-mail to the county attorney assigned to the case, explaining the issue. His superiors claimed that by e-mailing the county attorney, Barnes had displayed “unprofessional conduct.”

According to Coleman, a typical action against an officer for an unprofessional conduct claim wouldn’t warrant more than a letter of reprimand. Barnes, however, was removed from homicide and later placed on administrative leave. “It’s not outside of protocol to get the county attorney involved in homicide cases. In fact, it’s part of the job description,” Coleman says. “So I knew there was more to this than trying to investigate true unprofessional conduct.” Instead, Coleman says he believes the department made “an example” out of Barnes. “He was fully aware that he was a target because he spoke out against the lab practices that were costing time, that were costing evidence and convictions,” Coleman says. Assistant Chief Anderson says he cannot provide specifics on Barnes’ transfer, but he says it was “absolutely” not related to his complaints of the lab.  “It was a performance issue,” he says.  He added, “What we expect our detectives to do and our officers to do is if they have a concern to run that through the chain of command, to discuss that with their supervisor, so that we can address all their issues in a professional way.” After Barnes’ transfer he turned to Coleman, his union representative, who subsequently filed five grievances on Barnes’ behalf. Because Barnes is currently involved in litigation with the department, he declined, through Coleman, to speak to The Times about his case.

While investigating Barnes’ dismissal, Coleman pored through public records and spoke to dozens of detectives and lieutenants about problems in the crime lab. Soon, he says, it all began to point back to the lab’s biggest blunder on the Baseline Killer case. “I started doing some research; I started looking at dates,” Coleman says. “I said holy God almighty, there are seven dead people. We had the evidence here, and we did not send it out to be tested.” Coleman’s questions about those swabs got the attention of several high-ranking officials at the Phoenix Police Department. “We stumbled on something they really didn’t want me to stumble on and all of a sudden there was a whole lot of desire to talk to me,” he says. Coleman says he was later called into a meeting with several high-ranking officials including the crime-lab supervisor, Roger Schneider, Lieutenant Knott and Assistant Police Chief Montgomery. In the meeting he says he was given conflicting accounts about what happened to the Goudeau evidence. Coleman says that it seemed to him that even police officials were unclear about whether the swab had been lost and rediscovered or simply neglected. Regardless, he says it became clear that the police department was trying to cover up the mistake. “I started realizing, God, we’re covering this up,” he says. “We held onto this evidence waiting for a machine that was supposed to be on order. But how many months do you wait when the bodies are stacking up?”

Beyond Phoenix

If the Phoenix Police Department does not make changes to the crime lab, the results could be disastrous, says Crane, of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. Crime lab errors including falsified tests, misplaced evidence and scientific mistakes have led to a steady stream of exonerations and scandals in California, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Nevada and elsewhere. In Kansas, mislabeling of a blood sample 12 years ago let a man go free who now has been charged in a string of rapes and a 2002 murder. Widespread problems at the Houston Crime Lab led to the release of two men from prison, including one who served 17 years for a rape that new tests showed he did not commit. And just last year, the entire Detroit crime lab was shut down after an audit found erroneous or false findings in ten percent of 200 random cases and a “shocking level of incompetence” in the lab. Crane says a similar scandal is likely to result in Phoenix. “This, to me, is clearly why they are working so hard to cover this up,” Crane says, referring to the Detroit crime lab shuttering. “They see this looming. They know it’s going to look bad for the department. It’s going to give the city a black eye; it’s going to give the department a black eye.” According to a 2009 report by the National Academies of Science, many crime labs across the country are so seriously flawed that criminals are allowed to go free and the wrong people are sometimes convicted. The government-funded study also found little research to verify the integrity of scientific protocols used in criminal investigations and that so-called experts often lack proper training, resources and oversight. “In decades gone by, on the basis of no evidence to support it, forensic science has very commonly said our results border on perfect, we never make mistakes,” says Michael Saks, an Arizona State University law professor who addressed the research committee last year. “The more we look at real evidence we find out that’s not quite right, and that errors are a lot more common than we thought.”

An analysis of 86 exonerations, conducted by Saks and another professor, found that forensic science testing errors were the second most common factor in wrongful convictions, behind only misidentification by an eyewitness. While mistakes do happen, crime lab specialists say they are rare and usually the result of unavoidable human error. Saks says in most cases where mistakes are made, experts do not intend to convict innocent people but are biased by detectives who already believe the defendant is guilty. “I don’t think they start out with any bad motives. They have an inkling early on that this is the guy and then they discount evidence that suggests this isn’t the guy,” Saks says. “They end up with what looks to a judge and a jury like evidence, when it’s just been stretched and distorted and other evidence has been ignored.” To repair the pitfalls in the forensic-science field, the National Academies of Science called for a “wholesale overhaul” of the crime-lab system including upgrading and standardizing scientific practices and suggested a federal watchdog agency should be created to regulate crime labs and certify expert witnesses. Carrie Sperling, the executive director at the Arizona Justice Project, says ideally crime labs should become independent from police agencies and prosecuting attorneys to avoid confirmatory bias. “I think one of the biggest problems is the crime labs’ connection with law enforcement,” she says. “Crime labs should be taken out of the hands of prosecutors.”

Preventing Tragedies

Coleman says that cleaning up the problems at the Phoenix crime lab is what made him decide to come forward and expose the mishandling of evidence in the Baseline Killer case. He says he hopes confronting the truth can help prevent more crimes. “There are seven families and seven dead victims that would appreciate that lab being fixed,” says Coleman. “I don’t think they’re ever going to get true vindication, but if that lab could be fixed, that would be huge, because no one else would suffer.” But even if Mark Goudeau is found guilty of the Baseline murders, there is little consolation for the victims’ family members like Alvin Hogue. Hogue’s wife, Romelia Vargas, was shot in the head inside the Grill King Express lunch truck on February 20, 2006, in a crime police tied to the Baseline Killer. Vargas, 38, was a devoted mother of six including Hogue’s twin baby sons, Travis and Anthony, who were just four months old when their mother was killed. “My boys never got a chance to know their mom,” Hogue says. “Romelia is going to be very, very much missed. She’s irreplaceable.”

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