Expert: To prevent wrongful convictions, crime labs need independence from police departments

Jun 9, 2017
Originally published on June 9, 2017 1:12 pm

It was a day 25 years in coming.

A Wayne County judge threw out Desmond Ricks' murder conviction after it came to light that his 1992 conviction may have been based on faulty evidence produced by the Detroit police crime lab.

Desmond Ricks was finally exonerated.

The Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School took up Ricks' cause and won his exoneration.

David Moran, director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, joined Stateside to talk about the case and how he believes there are others who are victims of what was happening in that Detroit police crime lab.

In the case of Desmond Ricks, he was charged with second degree murder and a related gun charge for the shooting death of Gerry Bennett. In 1992, Ricks waited in the car as Bennett went to make a drug deal. As Ricks watched, Bennett was shot dead by another man involved in the drug deal. Ricks got out of the car and fled as the assailant shot at him. Ricks was identified as a suspect by the police because he dropped his jacket as he fled from the scene. 

Two days later, on March 5, 1992, the Detroit Police crime lab issued a one-page report that said the bullets that killed Bennett came from a gun owned by Ricks' mother. 

In the trial, there was no motive found. The prosecution's case was solely based on the gun, largely on the strength of the testimony of David Townshend, an independent ballistics analyst who agreed with the initial findings.

However, according to Moran, the Michigan State Police performed an audit on the Detroit Police's crime lab and found "massive problems" and irregularities. One of the main problems? They were matching bullets to guns that didn't match.

After the audit, Townsend came forward with his suspicion of the initial investigation. Upon further examination, it was found that the bullet could not have been fired from the gun owned by Ricks' mother.

As a result, after 25 years, Ricks was a free man.

According to Moran, this is not an isolated incident. 

"We've seen these crime lab scandals all across the country," Moran said. "Crime labs have been shut down or suspended because of fraud like this ... even in the FBI crime lab which is considered the very best of them all, there has been fraud. People, in some case, have been prosecuted for the fraud they have committed. The problem is with crime labs in general, and the Detroit Police Crime Lab is a great example of this, is that they're not independent of the police. So the way that you advance as a crime lab analyst is that you make your commanders happy."

Moran claims the current system provides incentive for dishonest people to make the evidence match even if it doesn't.

In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences made 13 recommendations, and Moran said the biggest one was making the lab independent from the police departments they serve.
 
So far, New York is the only state that has adopted that recommendation. 

Listen to the interview above to hear about possible criminal charges in this wrongful conviction case and how Ricks is doing after being released.

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