Detroit lawyers criticize crime lab probe

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Error-prone Detroit police crime lab closed

Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — A group of Detroit-area defense lawyers is calling for the U.S. Justice Department to take over the Wayne County prosecutor's audit of the troubled Detroit police crime lab.

It's a plea that federal officials appear slow to embrace.

William Winters, president of the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association, said he is troubled by the prospect of local prosecutors leading the investigation.

"You just have to avoid any appearance of impropriety," he said. "You really can't afford to have prosecutors reviewing their own cases."

Prosecutor Kym Worthy declined to comment Monday through her spokeswoman Maria Miller.

Winters said a meeting with prosecutors last Friday was a good first step, but the situation calls for an "independent review of all cases that are in any way impacted" by faulty testing at the now-shuttered lab.

"I've never seen a problem that approaches this," Winters said. "There has to be an independent review."

Worthy has said her office would review five years of criminal cases after a State Police review of the Detroit lab showed 10% of firearms evidence was inaccurate in criminal cases. Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. and Police Chief James Barren closed the lab two weeks ago.

Winters said Worthy should be commended for her quick action in closing the lab, but the review needs to go beyond five years and needs outside investigators.

Winters said the U.S. Justice Department and trial and appellate lawyers should join the review. He added that ongoing federal monitoring of Detroit police could possibly be expanded to include the lab.

Jack King, staff attorney for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in Washington, said Winters' request is appropriate. His association filed a public records lawsuit against the FBI in 1997 to force to disclosure of a government report critical of the FBI's crime lab.

"I'm sure the lab's credibility is going to be litigated in many cases, over and over," King said. "Going outside and getting an outside clean bill of health is a pretty good public relations move."

Detroit defense attorney Marvin Barnett, whose questions about the lab sparked the investigation, agreed a complete review is needed and that "it should be the feds. They are not a party to any of the cases."

Worthy "cannot do an independent audit. As outstanding as she is, she can't handle it," he said.

Ballistics work at the police lab was shut down in the spring after firearms expert David Balash, hired by Barnett, told Worthy about his findings in a double-murder case.

Lab investigators had determined 42 shell casings from a May 2007 double killing were fired from the same weapon. Balash later found that two weapons were used.

Jarrhod Williams pleaded no contest to two counts of first-degree premeditated murder before the audit results, Barnett said. He has not yet been sentenced and an evidentiary hearing is scheduled for Thursday in which Barnett said he will call lab workers who handled the firearms evidence.

But federal officials said no one has formally sought their help, and the federal government's oversight of Detroit police -- instituted after the Free Press uncovered shoddy investigations of police shootings and abuses in treatment of homicide arrestees -- does not cover the lab operations.

Acting U.S. Attorney Terrence Berg said the lab's integrity "is an important issue" but there has been no formal request for his assistance.

"Short of a legal action or request from the county, I don't see us coming in," Berg said. "I have nothing but faith in the way Kym Worthy's running the operation," he said.

The Police Department's federal monitor, Sheryl Robinson Wood, said she is unlikely to launch a review or reform of the crime lab, saying her authority does not extend to "every problem in the Police Department."

Copyright 2008 Detroit Free Press

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