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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

California's Other Forensic Science Problem

Posted By on Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 3:47 PM

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We've devoted a lot of ink over the past two months to problems with forensic science at the DNA division of the San Francisco Police Department Crime Lab. In December, SF Weekly reported that records of a DNA sample mix-up had been destroyed and that a prosecutor's memo criticizing the DNA lab had been concealed, among other problems.

But DNA analysis is just one branch of forensic science, and for those interested in the broader field's additional problems, ProPublica and California Watch are must-reads this week. The two nonprofit investigative reporting sites have published stories in a major series, "Post Mortem," documenting errors in death investigations by coroners and medical examiners across the country.

Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch documents an interesting story close to home -- the case of pathologist Thomas Gill, who has continued to perform autopsies despite a string of performance-related job dismissals.

Gabrielson writes,

Gill's ability to resurrect his career time and again reflects a profound weakness at the center of the U.S. system of death investigation. ...

A chronic shortage of qualified forensic pathologists allows even questionably competent practitioners to remain employable. The absence of trained practitioners is so acute that many jurisdictions don't look closely at the doctors they employ. Some of the officials who hired Gill acknowledged they knew about his problems but said they had no other viable options.

Check out the full national coverage, which was the work of ProPublica reporter (and former SF Weekly staff writer) A.C. Thompson, as well as Lowell Bergman of PBS' Frontline and ProPublica's Mosi Secret.

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Peter Jamison


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