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Case Sparks Post-Mortem on Troubled Crime Lab : Forensics: Underfunded, overworked facility grapples with questions raised by Simpson lawyers.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The evidence was badly mishandled. There was a rush to judgment. A man was accused of brutal slayings, then set free.

But is it the O.J. Simpson case? No.

Six years have passed, in fact, since these charges--the same ones that helped liberate the former football star Tuesday--were lodged against the Los Angeles Police Department and its much-maligned crime laboratory.

After revelations that bungled work at the LAPD crime lab wrongly implicated Rickey Ross, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, in a trio of slayings, outraged department officials pledged to clean up their act and make the LAPD “above reproach.”

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Now, the department seems anything but.

Once a legendary institution in its own right, the LAPD has emerged badly wounded from the Simpson case. Numerous questions were raised in the trial about the department, ranging from competence to racism to conspiracy. Most disturbing, perhaps, are Simpson jurors’ statements that they simply could not trust the work and testimony of LAPD detectives and criminalists.

As calls for reform have begun to come from many corners, the department’s understaffed, overburdened and financially hobbled crime lab has taken center stage. The crime lab’s firearms division operates out of a leaky, dilapidated building. Not long ago, water damaged two expensive microscopes used in the investigation of violent crimes.

“It hasn’t been right for 15 years,” said one former veteran crime lab worker, who now works as a consultant. “The problem with the lab is that it has been the bastard stepchild in the department for years. It’s been starved to death. It’s been the object of a lot of infighting. The lab has not kept up with technology.”

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In addition to denying any misconduct in the Simpson case, Police Chief Willie L. Williams and other officials have downplayed any interpretation of the verdict that says it represents a condemnation of LAPD practices and procedures. But several city officials are not so convinced.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg has called for the Police Commission and the council’s Public Safety Committee to immediately review rules and regulations about evidence gathering and examine practices to make sure that the lack of confidence displayed by Simpson jurors never again plays a role in a murder case. She said she will introduce a motion Tuesday, the next time the council is scheduled to meet, calling for such a review of the LAPD.

“We have to take a look at what the jury thought they saw,” Goldberg said. “They didn’t believe that the evidence was handled properly. There are specific steps we could take to take care of that. That’s the message.”

During the trial, the Simpson defense team raised considerable concerns about the lack of training of LAPD criminalists. Although saying the lab did nothing wrong in the Simpson case, lab veteran Doreen Hudson and former lab workers acknowledged Wednesday that training is indeed an issue. The lab provides on-the-job training for its criminalists, but employees usually must pay their own way to keep up with what are rapidly changing technologies.

On Wednesday, disheartened LAPD crime lab veterans said they were hoping for a silver lining in the not guilty verdicts: Increased attention by the police and political hierarchy to their long-unanswered pleas for new facilities, updated equipment and better training.

“Obviously, we now have some public attention drawn to some concerns we as laboratory people have had for 20 years,” said Hudson, a supervisor with two decades in the laboratory. “Instead of the deaf ear we have had for so many years, we will get the opportunity to be heard by those people who are in control of the purse strings.”

Hudson said the crime lab’s budget requests typically have taken a back seat to the ceaseless drive by the city’s politicians and police brass to increase the number of patrol officers on the street.

One former worker in Hudson’s department told of an incident in the late 1980s when he was told he could order two new microscopes used in firearms investigations. He called the manufacturer to place the order. While the manufacturer was preparing the order, the city withdrew funding. Instead of two state-of-the-art microscopes, “we ended up with two used microscopes,” the former worker said.

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For the last 4 1/2 years, Hudson has headed the LAPD’s Firearms Analysis Unit, which matches bullet casings and slugs to guns to help detectives solve shootings. Although the number of cases has tripled over that time, the 28-person firearms unit has remained the same size.

That has left beleaguered criminalists fighting a constant backlog of 300 cases. They work in a forlorn satellite laboratory in Highland Park, which is infested with rats. It leaks when it rains. It routinely suffers electrical shorts.

Hudson said employees are directed not to leave out equipment or evidence on counters for fear of the type of calamity that occurred five years ago: a roof collapsed under the weight of pooled rain and severely damaged microscopes and other equipment. Even when the microscopes are working, there is only about one for every three criminalists, meaning the workers often must wait for their most essential piece of equipment, Hudson said.

Because of the heavy backlog, officers and detectives are often left waiting for the crucial ballistics matches that can help them zero in on a suspect. Priority goes to cases about to go to trial and officer-involved shootings.

The senior supervisor said she soon expects the entire crime lab to begin a post-Simpson case dissection of its procedures and facilities.

She said laboratory officials have previously called for a redesign of the main crime laboratory at Piper Technical Center near Downtown. They have noted that new technologies, such as DNA blood analysis, were not contemplated at the time the lab was constructed in the early 1980s. The design did not include physical barriers between areas where various blood samples are handled--a fact repeatedly emphasized by Simpson’s lawyers.

“It’s just the appearance of a possibility of a problem,” Hudson said. “If that’s enough to warrant reasonable doubt, then obviously we need to change the physical facility so no other attorney can ever make that inference.”

The 20-year veteran said she is optimistic of what the Simpson verdict will ultimately accomplish. She noted that the pursuit and prosecution of Night Stalker Richard Ramirez led the department to purchase a computerized fingerprint identification system. The computer now solves about 100 crimes a month.

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“Sometimes we look for these terrible situations, unfortunately, to get the things we have so desperately needed for a long time,” Hudson said.

During the Simpson trial, John Gerdes, a DNA expert for the defense, testified that the LAPD crime lab was fraught with chronic contamination. After visiting the LAPD’s DNA lab, he said it was the worst he had seen, and he had reviewed the work of 23 DNA labs around the country.

LAPD spokesman Cmdr. Tim McBride said Wednesday that there is nothing seriously wrong with the department’s evidence-handling techniques, but he acknowledged that “there are always ways to do things better.”

He noted that the department has been reviewing some issues raised during the trial and made some changes. Among them: In the department’s South Bureau, a Homicide Support Team was formed to dispatch specialists immediately to each murder to collect evidence, compile reports and to cordon off the crime scene. Previously, those duties were sometimes left to inexperienced patrol officers until detectives arrived as much as an hour or more later.

McBride said the department wants “to hear what all the jurors have to say” before reaching any conclusions.

While reiterating its faith in the “vast majority” of the LAPD, the Police Commission issued a two-page statement Wednesday, saying it considered the trial “a wake-up call.”

Commission President Deirdre Hill said she is interested in learning “what concerns the district attorney’s office might have.”

“There is always room for improvement, and I would think that with technology changing as rapidly as it is, there might be a need for additional resources and training,” Hill said.

Noting that the LAPD “was in the Stone Age technologically” only a couple of years ago and has only recently begun to amass the resources needed to modernize the department, Councilwoman Laura Chick said she expects to find that “we have been ignoring and not giving resources to some of the sections for a long time.”

Times staff writers Jean Merl and Paul Lieberman contributed to this story.


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