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The FBI DNA Laboratory: A Review of Protocol and Practice Vulnerabilities
Office of the Inspector General
The Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Laboratory Division has played an important role in the development of the use of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, in the investigation of crimes. The DNA analysis units at the FBI Laboratory screen evidence from crime scenes for potential sources of DNA. When DNA is identified, FBI forensic scientists isolate and characterize the DNA to produce a profile that can be linked to a particular individual. The Laboratory relies upon written procedures and protocols to govern the testing techniques that are used to produce DNA profiles and to ensure that its DNA testing results are scientifically valid.5
The impetus for this review was the FBI's discovery that one of its DNA analysis unit staff members, Jacqueline Blake, disregarded an important step in the DNA testing process and produced dozens of DNA profiles that are scientifically invalid and unusable in court. Our review examines the vulnerability of the protocols in the unit where Blake worked - the DNA Analysis Unit I (DNAUI or Unit) - to undetected inadvertent or willful noncompliance by DNAUI staff members.6
Blake was employed in the DNAUI and its predecessor unit from August 1988 to June 2002. Starting in March 2000, she worked as a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Biologist and was responsible for performing tests on DNA from crime scenes and convicted offenders. Laboratory Examiners testified in court in reliance on the integrity of the procedures that she employed. During her tenure as a PCR Biologist, Blake performed analyses in slightly more than 100 cases.
Starting in the late stages of her training to become a PCR Biologist and for more than two years thereafter, Blake consistently failed to complete tests that identify whether contamination has been introduced during the DNA testing process, called negative control tests. Her failure called into question the integrity of the DNA profiles that her analyses generated, since it was not possible to confirm that her results were a true reflection of the evidence analyzed, unadulterated by contamination introduced in the Laboratory. Blake falsified her laboratory documentation to conceal the shortcut she was taking to generate contamination-free testing results.
Blake generated more than two years' worth of testing results before the FBI Laboratory realized that Blake had failed to complete the negative control testing in the vast majority of her cases. Blake later resigned from the Laboratory and currently is under criminal investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ or Department) for her misconduct.
Blake's actions have rendered all of her DNA analyses for which she failed to complete the negative controls scientifically invalid. In addition, we found that her conduct caused substantial adverse effects in at least five respects: 1) it required the removal of 29 DNA profiles from NDIS, 20 of which have yet to be restored;7 2) it delayed the delivery of reliable DNA reports to contributors of DNA evidence in Blake's cases; 3) her testing consumed all the available DNA evidence in several cases, leaving only her suspect DNA profiles as a basis on which to draw conclusions; 4) the corrective action necessary to address Blake's misconduct has consumed substantial resources of the FBI Laboratory and DOJ, as well as the resources of state and local investigators and prosecutors who were notified of her misconduct and had to take corrective measures in their cases; and 5) the controversy surrounding Blake has caused some measure of credibility loss to the FBI Laboratory.
Following notification from the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), the OIG began an investigation of Blake and interviewed Laboratory staff members, analyzed documents, and met with representatives of the FBI's Office of General Counsel (OGC). The OIG investigation resulted in Blake signing an affidavit confessing to her misconduct. In addition, because the FBI Laboratory's application of its protocols did not lead to Blake's early detection, the OIG initiated this review of the FBI Laboratory's DNA protocols to assess whether the protocols were vulnerable to other abuse and instances of noncompliance.
This report describes the results of the OIG vulnerability assessment. Our primary objectives were twofold: 1) to analyze the vulnerability of the protocols in the DNAUI to undetected inadvertent or willful noncompliance by DNAUI staff members; and 2) to assess the DNAUI's application of the protocols identified as vulnerable. The report also notes several areas of concern with the management response of the FBI to Blake's misconduct.8
The OIG's vulnerability assessment proceeded in two phases. In the first phase, the OIG team reviewed the most current version of each of the written protocols governing DNAUI activities for vulnerabilities. The second phase consisted of OIG fieldwork at the DNAUI laboratory.
To facilitate our examination, we recruited three scientists from the national DNA community to consult with our assessment team. The scientists were responsible for reviewing the DNAUI protocols and identifying any weaknesses in them that would render the Unit vulnerable to undetected wrongdoing by staff members. The scientists also assisted OIG staff members in designing fieldwork to verify actual laboratory practices for the protocols deemed problematic, and in assessing whether these practices served to mitigate any of the vulnerabilities identified.
The fieldwork conducted by OIG staff consisted of interviews of more than 20 staff members within the DNAUI and the Laboratory Division and tours of the DNAUI facility, first at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and later at the new DNAUI facility in Quantico, Virginia. In addition to interviews, we also reviewed FBI documentation regarding: 1) the factors considered in the design of the new DNA facility; 2) the training curriculum and methods used within the DNAUI, along with various staff training records; and 3) the status of development of a computerized tracking system for evidence, samples, and other information. We then analyzed the DNAUI staff practices described during this fieldwork to identify whether vulnerabilities existed in staff practices, in addition to the protocol vulnerabilities already identified. Finally, we examined documents and interviewed personnel from the Laboratory, FBI OGC, and the Counterterrorism Section at the Department regarding the management response to Blake's misconduct.
The report is divided into six chapters. Following this Chapter, we provide an overview in Chapter Two of the DNA testing process and the national standards that govern it. In Chapter Three we describe the FBI Laboratory, including operations in the DNAUI, and the FBI's protocols for DNA analysis. Chapter Four details Blake's misconduct and the FBI's response to it. In Chapter Five we describe the protocols and practices that we believe are vulnerable to abuse, and lastly, in Chapter Six we provide recommendations to enhance protocol compliance in the DNAUI.