Independent Audit of Virginia's DNA Lab Prompts Review of 150 Cases

An independent audit of Virginia's central crime laboratory initiated by the present governor found that the lab had botched DNA tests in the death penalty case of Earl Washington (pictured). The finding prompted Gov. Mark Warner to order a review of 150 other criminal cases and the development of procedures to insulate the lab from outside political pressures.

The audit was conducted by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. It found that the Virginia lab's internal review process was flawed, and it raised concerns that lab workers had felt pressured to produce quick and conclusive results in the Washington case, even when the evidence was unclear. Washington had been sentenced to death for a 1982 murder and rape. His death sentence was commuted in 1994 after DNA tests first threw doubt on his guilt. He was eventually granted an absolute pardon in 2000 and freed from prison. Tests commissioned by defense lawyers in 2004 have implicated another suspect, who is in prison in an unrelated rape case. The audit concluded that the state lab improperly excluded this suspect as the source of DNA found on the victim.

Betty Layne DesPortes, a defense attorney who heads a legal panel for the American Academy of Forensic Science, commented about the audit's findings: "You have to have doubts about the reliability of any case coming out of there. How can we be sure that this case wasn't typcial." Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions carried out since 1976. (N.Y. Times, May 8, 2005). See Gov. Warner's Press Release, with link to the entire report.  See also Innocence.