Conn. Crime Lab Faces Scrutiny Over Struggles

Nov. 16, 2011
The lab is staggering under a 4,500-case backlog of untested DNA cases and has lost its professional accreditation.

Henry C. Lee, the father of the state's crime lab, said this week that stronger leadership and a recommitment to public service were needed to solve the problems that have virtually crippled the forensic center since his retirement early this decade.

The lab is staggering under a 4,500-case backlog of untested DNA cases and has lost its professional accreditation.

"It took me 30 years to build this thing; they are trying to rip it down in three years," Lee said Monday.

He was reacting to the latest story in Sunday's Courant about the lab's recent travails, which focused on the use of compensatory time by two top lab scientists to support robust second careers as expert witnesses.

In an interview Tuesday at the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven, the criminalist who helped solve the infamous "wood-chipper murder" and refute prosecution evidence in the O.J. Simpson and William Kennedy Smith trials said he wasn't looking to place blame.

He agreed that the Connecticut lab was understaffed and said that law enforcement has to be far more selective about the amount and type of evidence it sends to the lab.

But he said the lab needed stronger leadership and a recommitment to serving the public.

"Good scientists don't always make good managers -- you have to be a combination of both," said Lee, the founder of the forensic institute at UNH. He was the major catalyst in a campaign that raised nearly $24 million to build and equip the main institute building at UNH, where he still lectures extensively to students on campus, and to professionals from throughout the world.

"You have to know how to manage the case work, how to manage the time, how to work with your state police bosses, and even how to manage the state, to get the funding," Lee said.

The current lab director, Ken Zercie, did not return phone messages and emails last week seeking comment for the Sunday story.

Lee said he encouraged his staff members at the lab to do outside research and consulting work. Those he counseled included current DNA section chief Carll Ladd and supervisory DNA scientist Michael Bourke, the two professionals whose extensive use of comp time to do outside work for private clients was the subject of Sunday's story. Ladd and Bourke regularly work more than 40 hours a week at the state lab, but their habit of working some long days so that they can be away from the lab on certain other weekdays is drawing increasing scrutiny.

Lee cited a key difference between his own outside work and that of the numerous scientists in the lab who currently provide services for private clients: Lee contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars from his outside work, including analyzing mass graves in Bosnia and consulting on the Jon-Benet Ramsey killing, to the state and to the University of New Haven.

On Tuesday, Lee produced a sheaf of letters and reports documenting donations that he made to the crime lab when he was director there. For example, Lee's donations established a research fund at the lab and paid travel expenses for scientists to attend professional conferences, where they either learned new techniques or presented their own innovations to their peers.

"The leader has to set the example. No one asked me to put aside money for lab equipment and funding," he said.

Lee said he hopes for the success of an expert panel appointed in August by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to recommend reforms at the embattled laboratory. The panel's report is due in January.

"The lab needs to be rekindled, restarted, re-energized," Lee said. "It has to find its way."

He acknowledged that the backlog at the lab, one of the worst logjams in the country, was much greater than anything his staff had to deal with.

"But we did have backlogs. I would mobilize the entire lab, fingerprint section, everyone, and we would work weekends to catch up," Lee said.

He added that every lab manager maintained his or her own caseload, and committed to completing 15 investigations a month.

"And I took the most complicated cases. I wanted my senior staff to look up to me, and I wanted the junior staff to look up to them. And I wanted the trainees to be devoted to the future of the lab," he said. "I never asked my people to do more than I was willing to do myself."

Lee said there were pros and cons to removing the lab from the state police hierarchy, which is one idea that the expert panel is debating.

"I don't think it's a hindrance," Lee said, in stark contrast to the sentiments of Ladd and Bourke, who said the lab should be wrested from the state police administration. Ladd and Bourke consider Lee a mentor and have co-authored professional articles with him.

"It shouldn't matter which department you are under," Lee said. "The key is selecting the right lab managers."

"This is a small agency," Lee said of the lab. "But it is highly visible -- because people trust physical evidence. We can give them the honest truth. That is why it's so important that the lab regain its confidence."

Copyright 2011 - The Hartford Courant, Conn.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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