Control of Orange County’s crime laboratory was transferred this week to the sole control of law enforcement, directly contradicting the national best practices Sheriff Don Barnes and DA Todd Spitzer cited to justify the change.
Spitzer also backed away from his longstanding calls to potentially end the district attorney’s in-house DNA collection program, which he previously raised concerns about as a conflict of interest.
The county crime lab, which collects and analyzes crime scene evidence across Orange County, has for the last decade been jointly overseen by three people: the civilian county CEO, the sheriff-coroner, and the district attorney.
Conflict-of-interest concerns arose after crime lab scientists, in Orange County and across the country, reported facing pressure from law enforcement officials that serve as their boss to manipulate scientific analyses.
In a case previously cited by Spitzer, an Orange County crime lab scientist testified a DA prosecutor tried to get her to change her findings from a 2005 carjacking case in a way that would have falsely shown an innocent person committed a crime.
The National Academy of Sciences says forensic science investigations should be independent of law enforcement.
Barns and Spitzer, who both took office in January after winning election last year, recently asked county supervisors to change the lab’s management to instead fall “exclusively under the Sheriff-Coroner.”
On Tuesday, county supervisors unanimously approved their request.
In their staff report requesting the consolidation under the Sheriff’s Department, Spitzer and Barnes said it would be “commensurate with national forensic recommendations,” and Barnes told supervisors Tuesday their recommendation is “an industry best practice.”
In support of their request, they cited a 2009 study by the National Academy of Sciences about crime laboratories.
It turns out the study recommended the opposite of what Spitzer and Barnes asked for.
“Scientific and medical assessment conducted in forensic investigations should be independent of law enforcement efforts either to prosecute criminal suspects or even to determine whether a criminal act has indeed been committed,” the study states.
“Administratively, this means that forensic scientists should function independently of law enforcement administrators. The best science is conducted in a scientific setting as opposed to a law enforcement setting,” the study added.
“Because forensic scientists often are driven in their work by a need to answer a particular question related to the issues of a particular case, they sometimes face pressure to sacrifice appropriate methodology for the sake of expediency.”
The study recommends “removing all public forensic laboratories and facilities from the administrative control of law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices.”
Asked about the contradiction between his request and the study he cited for the national recommendation, Spitzer and his office didn’t have a comment.
Barnes’ office, when asked about the contradiction, emphasized research saying prosecutors shouldn’t oversee crime labs, though the report Barnes cited says crime labs should not be under any type of law enforcement agency, such as his Sheriff’s Department.
“While some in academia believe that crime labs should be completely independent, like some of the recommendations in the report, very few crime labs are,” Barnes’ office said in a statement.
“But the majority agree that prosecutorial teams should be separate as the report mentions. Removing even the appearance of bias in oversight of the Crime Lab is important.”
The Sheriff’s Department is part of the DA’s prosecution team, according to the state appeals court in Orange County.
Barnes’ office declined to answer a follow-up question asking why he recommended bringing the crime lab solely under a law enforcement agency, when the study he pointed to raises concerns about that structure and recommends against it.
Supervisors, as they prepared to vote on the DA and sheriff’s recommendation Tuesday, commended Spitzer and Barnes for suggesting the change to have the crime lab report only to the Sheriff’s Department.
“There is a healthy respect for separation of powers that I am seeing in this item, from law enforcement and from those charged with going out and getting the prosecutions and the convictions that the evidence warrants,” said new Supervisor Don Wagner, whose daughter is a prosecutor in the DA’s office.
“I’m fully supportive of it,” Wagner said of having the lab report solely to the Sheriff’s Department.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett thanked Spitzer for working with Barnes in “moving the crime lab back into the Sheriff’s Department.”
“It takes out any perceived or inherent conflict with regard to collecting evidence and also prosecuting based on that evidence,” Bartlett said.
Crime Lab Scientist Alleged Attempt to Manipulate Evidence
Spitzer, when he was a county supervisor in 2015, publicly pointed to testimony by a OC crime lab scientist who said DA prosecutors tried to pressure her to change her findings regarding DNA samples in a 2005 carjacking case.
The forensic scientist, Danielle Wieland, later testified that when crime scene DNA didn’t match that of a man charged with the carjacking, the head of the DA’s DNA unit asked her to change her conclusion.
In that case, Buena Park resident James Ochoa was being prosecuted for the carjacking, but the Sheriff’s Department crime lab found that DNA from the crime scene didn’t match Ochoa’s. Wieland, the forensic scientist in the case, later testified under oath that the head of the DA’s DNA unit tried to pressure her to change her findings.
“[Deputy DA Camille Hill] called me and asked me to change the conclusion that Mr. Ochoa was eliminated” from being the source of the DNA found on a shirt at the crime scene, Wieland testified in her 2008 deposition.
Hill disputed Wieland’s testimony, saying in 2015 she “in no way pressured” the scientist, and that an investigation by the county CEO found Wieland’s “accusations were unfounded.” Hill passed away in 2016.
Spitzer Reverses on Threat to End DA’s DNA Program
Spitzer, during his years as a county supervisor from 2013 to early 2019, repeatedly and publicly uestioned the district attorney’s own DNA collection program and said he would consider ending it.
“I am not convinced the DA needs its own crime lab,” Spitzer said in November after he was elected as the county’s top prosecutor.
“I’m incredibly concerned that they are misusing the DNA lab to get convictions,” he added.
His view appears to changed. In recent weeks, he recommended continuing the DNA program for at least another three years, which supervisors approved unanimously on Tuesday.
Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Contini, who oversees the DA’s DNA program, told supervisors Tuesday the DA program helps catch criminals, with 15 to 20 “hits,” or matches, each week.
“There have been serious violent homicides that have been solved based on this operation,” Contini said.
DA officials, in response to questions from Voice of OC Tuesday morning, said in the evening they were still assembling information on how many homicides their DNA program solved, and examples of those cases, and would provide answers in the future.
DA officials said the DNA program also has deterrent effect on lower-level criminals who know they’re more at risk of getting caught in the future due to their DNA being in the system.
“It is a great deterrent, and it’s now been academically corroborated,” Spitzer said, citing a 2017 study by a University of Virginia professor.
Standard practice in California is for local law enforcement to collect DNA from people arrested on suspicion of felonies and crime scenes. The samples from arrestees then get loaded into a statewide database that’s available to investigators.
But in Orange County, the district attorney has its own DNA database in which it collects and analyzes DNA samples from people arrested for lower-level crimes like petty theft and drug possession. In exchange for paying a $75 fee and letting technicians swab their mouth for a DNA sample, these suspects have the charges against them dropped.
On Tuesday, county supervisors increased the DNA collection fee to $110, which now will grow in future years based on inflation.
The DA program, which was started in 2007, is unique in California and has collected over 140,000 DNA samples.
Contact Nick Gerda at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @nicholasgerda.