Nearly one of every three cocaine tests conducted for criminal cases by the Indiana Department of Toxicology from 2007-2009 were bad, according to audit results released today by Indiana University.
The findings follow the release in April of audit results that revealed a 10 percent error rate in marijuana tests during the same period.
The lab has been operated by Indiana University since 1957, but will become a standalone state agency later this year. The move comes as a result of legislation passed this year by the General Assembly in the wake of growing concerns about problems at the lab, including long waits for results and questions about the accuracy of results . . .
MacIntyre said the bulk of the bad tests results were from 2007 and 2008, with “most of the problems resolved in 2009.” That would coincide with the arrival of a new lab director, Michael Wagner, who was the first forensic toxicologist to head the lab in more than a decade. Wagner resigned — under pressure, he contends, from IU officials — as concerns about the lab mounted.
The audit will now move to alcohol tests results from 2007-2009, which MacIntyre said will include the largest number of tests to be reviewed.
But the Indianapolis Star reported last month that the problems go back even further:
The Indianapolis Star reported Tuesday that about 2,000 emails it obtained from the lab show the agency was beset by incorrect test results from 2004 to 2006. A current audit of the lab’s work is covering only 2007 to 2009.
The lab tests blood and urine samples for evidence in criminal cases. The emails obtained by The Star show inadequate staffing and funding produced an environment in the lab ripe for errors, including the kind that could lead to people being denied justice, or escaping it.
The emails are correspondence to and from Peter Method, who served as the acting director of the department from 2003 to 2008. They suggest benign neglect on the part of the Indiana University School of Medicine, which did not authorize an audit of test results until 2008, at least four years after the first testing errors were reported by email.
One of the most telling notes was written by the lab’s supervisor in November 2006 to Method and Method’s supervisor, Michael Vasko, chair of the medical school’s Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology.
“I never had this (happen), error after error. … I guess if this is acceptable to you and the department, then I don’t have to worry. If an error occurs again in the future, I won’t bother you anymore,” the supervisor wrote.
The audit has already shown the lab sent out, on average, a flawed marijuana result every 3.28 days and a false positive marijuana result once every 18 days.
Among the more important revelations from the email correspondence are IU allowed the lab to languish under Method from 2003 to 2008, even though he acknowledged he was underqualified for the job.
They also show that while Method reported to Vasko, IU said Vasko’s job was merely broad “administrative oversight” — leaving the lab to Method as problems mounted.
Based on the emails alone, The Star found documentation of 26 bad test results from 2004 to 2006 that were reported to law enforcement.
Of those, 12 were false positives — findings that might have compromised the rights of Indiana residents. The other 14 were false negatives that might have prevented law enforcement from charging guilty people.
The error rates were seeing in these stories are jaw-dropping, especially when you consider the potential consequences of those errors. These stories ought to be a huge national scandal.
Note that this particular lab was affiliated with a university; it didn’t fall under the auspices of a law enforcement agency. The latter is especially problematic, but you don’t correct these problems simply by giving a lab more independence. The underlying problem is that we’re producing evidence that’s presented in court as “science” under conditions that fall well short of that definition.
This is also another data point in the case for a system of rivalrous redundancy. I think it’s safe to say that you’re considerably less likely to fall into a rut of “benign neglect” if you know your results will be regularly double-checked by another lab.