City forensics under audit

CLEVELAND – An ongoing audit of the city’s crime lab accuses a fired forensic analyst of following poor procedures but provides no evidence that he intentionally misled juries with his testimony, an Associated Press review of records showed.

“I haven’t sent them [prosecutors] a single thing that made me think they better act on this,” said Jim Wooley, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is leading the audit.

The audit concludes that forensic analyst Joseph Serowik – whose work has been questioned by the Innocence Project – routinely failed to record data to back up his results and at times demonstrated a lack of understanding of the evidence he presented on the witness stand.

So far, the audit has covered 34 rape and murder convictions dating to 1987, according to city records the AP accessed through a public records request. The results of the audit, which began in 2004, had not yet been reported.

The Innocence Project, which works on behalf of criminals whose convictions have been challenged as unfair, said more analysis is needed because the audit didn’t include the retesting of DNA evidence. The project last month requested new trials for two defendants whose murder cases were reviewed.

“Until you conduct in many of these cases the actual testing … you can’t reach scientific conclusions about what he [Serowik] did or did not do,” Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck said. The group earlier had accused Serowik of either missing important evidence or lying to juries.

The review in Cleveland is among several that have been conducted around the country. A crime lab audit in Houston revealed that employees botched analyses and taught themselves scientific technique by reading books at home. At least one conviction was overturned.

Serowik said he hadn’t seen the Cleveland audit reports and couldn’t comment on them.

“I have contended all along that at no time did I misrepresent my results,” he said. “The procedures that I followed were procedures established by the police department.”

The city fired Serowik in 2004 over his work in a rape case that led to the crime lab audit. The conviction of Michael Green was overturned based on DNA evidence, and the $1.6 million settlement of his civil lawsuit included the provision that 17 years of the police laboratory’s work involving Serowik get an outside review.

Robert Spalding, a retired FBI special agent hired by Wooley, reviewed Serowik’s lab records and transcripts of trial testimony at a cost of $58,136 to the city, according to records.

The AP review of Spalding’s reports showed that in each case he concluded Serowik did not mislead any juries with his trial testimony.

In many cases, however, Spalding criticized Serowik and the crime lab for failing to properly record forensic data during the testing process. Spalding also questioned Serowik’s understanding of the analyses he conducted and wrote that in some cases misstatements – apparently unintentional – were made during his testimony.

Serowik often did not record raw data, Spalding noted, which made it impossible to determine whether some of his conclusions were accurate. Spalding noted that the lab’s documentation improved in the late 1990s.

“Our forensic lab has been reorganized and our policies updated,” Police Commander Ed Tomba said through spokesman Lt. Thomas Stacho. The lab no longer tests for DNA, instead sending such evidence to the state’s Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation.

Tomba said the department looked forward to the findings and recommendations of the audit.

It isn’t immediately clear, though, what will happen next.

Wooley said it’s up to the city to decide whether any cases need a second look. But, city spokeswoman Andrea Taylor said the settlement leaves that decision up to Wooley.

“We will make sure a review is conducted,” said Scheck of the Innocence Project.

In the two cases challenged last month, the Innocence Project accuses Serowik of either failing to conduct thorough blood tests on the clothing of an eyewitness or lying about the results. Instead of a single bloodstain from the victim, as Serowik testified, there were at least seven, according to Scheck.

There are still more cases to be audited, including 16 in which the defendants have finished serving their prison terms. A percentage of cases involving Serowik that ended in plea bargains also will be reviewed, said Julianne Kurdila, the city’s chief assistant law director.

Since the Cleveland audit was commissioned, reviews have been launched in Virginia, Massachusetts and Montana.