New York Times
 May 7, 2005 

 Lab's Errors in '82 Killing Force Review of Virginia DNA Cases
 By James Dao

 A sharply critical independent audit found Friday that Virginia's 
 nationally recognized central crime laboratory had botched DNA tests in a 
 leading capital murder case. The findings prompted Gov. Mark Warner to 
 order a review of the lab's handling of testing in 150 other cases as well.

 Among the auditors' eight recommendations, all of which were accepted by 
 Mr. Warner, were that the governor restrict the work of the lab's chief 
 DNA scientist, Jeffrey Ban; review 40 cases that Mr. Ban has handled in 
 recent years, along with a sample totaling 110 additional cases; and 
 develop procedures to insulate the lab from any outside political 
 pressures.

 Experts said the findings could lead to a re-examination of scores of past 
 prosecutions, including those involving some of the nearly two dozen 
 inmates on Virginia's death row, and might also throw into turmoil many 
 current prosecutions in which the lab's work helped identify or rule out 
 suspects.

 ''You have to have doubts about the reliability of any case coming out of 
 there,'' said Betty Layne DesPortes, a criminal defense lawyer from 
 Richmond who heads a legal panel for the American Academy of Forensic 
 Science. ''How can we be sure that this case wasn't typical?'' she said of 
 the handling of evidence in the prosecution of Earl Washington Jr.

 The governor called for the independent audit of the lab last fall in 
 response to the case of Mr. Washington, a retarded man who came within 
 days of execution for a rape and killing before DNA evidence, though not 
 resolving the case, did raise doubts about his guilt.

 The audit's findings come at a time when DNA is growing in importance in 
 implicating and exonerating suspects. Forensic labs in several states, 
 including Oklahoma and Texas, have come under intense scrutiny for their 
 mishandling of that and other evidence.

 The outside auditors, from the American Society of Crime Laboratory 
 Directors, found that the Virginia lab's internal review process was 
 flawed. They also raised concerns that lab workers had felt pressured by 
 their superiors as well as the office of Jim Gilmore, who was governor 
 when a flawed test of newly discovered DNA was conducted in 2000, to 
 produce quick and conclusive reports in the Washington case, even when the 
 evidence was muddled.

 ''Pressures from outside the laboratory and excessive managerial influence 
 from within the laboratory,'' the report said, ''had a detrimental effect 
 on the analyst's decisions, examinations and reports in this case.''

 In an interview, Mr. Gilmore, a death penalty supporter now in private law 
 practice, said that while he had ''demanded all the proper evidence we 
 could get,'' he had never asked the lab to reach any particular conclusion.

 Virginia has executed more people, 94, than any other state except Texas 
 since the Supreme Court allowed reinstatement of the death penalty 29 
 years ago. Mr. Washington was initially sentenced to death for the 1982 
 rape and fatal stabbing of Rebecca Williams, a 19-year-old mother from 
 Culpepper, Va., but the sentence was commuted by Gov. Douglas Wilder in 
 1994. He was then pardoned by Mr. Gilmore in 2000 because of DNA evidence 
 that raised doubts about his guilt.

 But because of mistakes in the DNA tests by the crime lab in 1993, his 
 lawyers assert, he stayed on death row seven years longer than necessary. 
 And additional botched testing in 2000, they say, is the reason he has 
 never been fully exonerated.

 ''This laboratory touts itself as the best state lab in the country, yet 
 it generated these wrong test results in a capital case twice,'' said 
 Peter Neufeld, a lawyer for Mr. Washington who is co-director of the 
 Innocence Project. ''This case raises very serious questions about the 
 legitimacy of the capital justice system.''

 Mr. Washington, 45, is living in a home for the mentally retarded on 
 Virginia's Eastern Shore. When he was told Friday afternoon about the 
 audit's findings, he said he hoped he would now be officially declared 
 innocent in the Williams murder, Mr. Neufeld said.

 Mr. Ban, a nationally recognized forensic scientist who has helped other 
 states develop DNA policies, trained many members of the Virginia lab's 
 staff. As a result, the auditors recommended that independent experts 
 review tests by other analysts there involving low levels of DNA -- the 
 type of evidence used in the Williams case -- to ensure that similar 
 problems were not rampant at the lab.

 The audit found an array of problems in the way Mr. Ban had conducted and 
 analyzed DNA tests in the Williams case. Those mistakes caused him to 
 conclude incorrectly that a convicted serial rapist named Kenneth Tinsley 
 was not the source of semen found in Ms. Williams, even though he had been 
 found to be the source of DNA on a blanket at the crime scene.

 But a test commissioned by Mr. Washington's lawyers in 2004 pointed to Mr. 
 Tinsley as the likely sole source of the DNA found in Ms. Williams. Had 
 the state lab come to the same conclusion, Mr. Washington's lawyers claim, 
 Mr. Tinsley would have been prosecuted for the Williams murder years ago. 
 He never has been, though Mr. Neufeld said he was now imprisoned in an 
 unrelated rape case.

 The Virginia legislature enacted a law this year that makes the Division 
 of Forensic Science, which runs the central crime lab, an independent 
 state agency and creates an advisory board, made up in part by division 
 employees, to help oversee its work. But Mr. Neufeld said the legislation 
 did not go far enough because it did not create an entirely independent 
 office to review the lab's work.

 ''The audit provides compelling evidence that crime labs can't police 
 themselves,'' Mr. Neufeld said.

 Paul B. Ferrara, the director of the Division of Forensic Science, who in 
 the past refused to acknowledge any errors in the Washington case, 
 declined to be interviewed. But in a statement, he said the audit ''belies 
 the major body of other work'' by Mr. Ban that helped lead to Mr. 
 Washington's pardon.

 Ms. DesPortes, of the forensic science academy, criticized Mr. Ferrara for 
 what she described as his failure to shield Mr. Ban from ''typical'' 
 political pressure on crime labs. She said his response to the audit 
 suggested that he would not vigorously carry out its recommendations.

 ''He seems to think a perfect lab is one where errors never occur,'' she 
 said. ''But errors are going to occur. A perfect system is one that is 
 able to catch its mistakes, and correct them.''