ALBANY, NY The State Police is seeking to fire 15 forensic scientists who were implicated in an alleged cheating scandal at the DNA laboratory in Albany.
A State Police spokesman issued a statement Tuesday confirming scientists were suspended without pay and issued termination notices following a six-month internal probe that sidelined nearly half the laboratory unit’s DNA analysts.
“After a six-month internal investigation into allegations of unauthorized information sharing on training exams for TrueAllele System 3, the State Police served a total of 15 employees assigned to the Forensic Investigation Center with notices of discipline seeking termination,” Beau Duffy, a State Police spokesman, said. “The employees have been suspended and will remain so pending the outcome of the administrative disciplinary process.”
The investigation centered on the scientists’ answers on a qualification test for a controversial new type of DNA analysis that Duffy said the State Police has spent $1 million and several years to implement. The program is still not in use by the State Police, where top officials have resisted implementing it, according to a former lab scientist.
The internal investigation began last September when a laboratory official discovered similarities on written answers in the tests completed by the scientists. Critics of TrueAllele have questioned whether the scientists, with backgrounds in biology, were under pressure to qualify to use the computer-based system and to become experts in computational biology and biostatistics, according to two experts who have studied the program.
Prosecutors across upstate New York, meanwhile, are grappling with the fallout of the case they said could taint an unknown number of pending criminal cases, including trials where the suspended analysts have testified.
The Times Union first reported earlier this month that two of the scientists, both supervisors, were suspended and served with termination notices in late February. The DNA scientists implicated so far in the investigation were placed on restricted duty earlier this year and prohibited from working on criminal cases. They spent the past several months locked out of the laboratory and reported to work at the State Police Academy, where many were questioned by internal affairs investigators, according to a person briefed on the case. A 16th scientist remains on restricted duty but has not been suspended, according to the State Police.
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney and Albany County District Attorney David Soares both said their offices have had DNA results in pending criminal cases re-reviewed by laboratory supervisors who were not caught up in the case. Carney added that another district attorney from outside the Capital Region, whom he declined to identify, told him recently that the State Police investigation was impacting homicide cases in which DNA analysts snared in the investigation are no longer available to testify.
“Obviously we’re going to wait until the State Police have concluded their investigation to see what the outcome will be, but whatever the outcome there surely will be an impact on our cases,” said Warren County District Attorney Kathleen B. Hogan.
Officials with the Public Employees Federation, which represents those targeted, declined to comment but said they would “vigorously represent any PEF-represented employee in such matters, and … provide an attorney to represent them free of charge.”
The DNA casework unit at the State Police laboratory uses genetic testing to identify or exonerate potential suspects in more than a thousand criminal cases statewide each year. Most of the upstate counties, including the Capital Region, rely on the State Police lab for processing. The testing improprieties surfaced in a Schenectady murder case last fall when the cheating allegations were made public as part of pretrial testimony in a murder case. The scientists were all being tested to use a new type of DNA analysis, TrueAllele, that was integral to the government’s case in the Schenectady murder case, which resulted in a conviction. The DNA work in the Schenectady case was done by a private firm that invented the program. Because the agency handled the evidence, the scandal was disclosed by county prosecutors.
“It’s a real big blow to the program,” said Barry Duceman, former director of biological sciences for the State Police. “There’s a lot invested in these individuals … and for the most part these folks have all gotten commendations from prosecutors in cases they’ve testified on.”
Duceman, who retired last year and was not involved in the scandal, said the scientists all were subjected to background screening before being hired. “These were people who were all vetted, seriously vetted, before they were hired,” he said. “We always thought we could count on their integrity so this is very surprising to me.”