Dallas DA's New Digital Forensics Lab Could Cause Conflicts of Interest, Critic Says

Ahead of his election day disaster, District Attorney Craig Watkins announced the creation of a new division in his office. He's done this before, most recently with the Civil Rights Division, a team that will investigate, right alongside Internal Affairs, when a police officers shoots someone. The latest is a digital forensics lab that will analyze evidence such as text messages, emails and digital video. But an in-house lab that handles and stores evidence might be a conflict of interest, or at least open proseuctors to accusations of it.

In a press release,Watkins gave the example of a thief using Google Maps to case a house, instead of one of those musty paper ones, and then texting his buddies the address, instead of meeting to discuss in person. The Google search and the text messages are digital evidence.

His office heralds the lab as something new, but there's a reason having an in-house forensics lab of any kind is an anomaly these days. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences, a private nonprofit, recommended that forensics labs be independent from police departments and district attorneys' office. The recommendation was based, in part, on avoiding conflicts of interest.

See also: Tonight in Dallas, Craig Watkins Will Discuss His Plan to Investigate All Police Shootings

Being independent would "resolve any cultural pressures caused by the differing missions of forensic science labs and law enforcement agencies," noted the academy.

With Watkins' plan, lawyers arguing a case would also be in charge of the evaluating evidence.

"The day accusations arise of evidence tampering, the fact that the forensic analyst is situated in the prosecutor's office may become a problem," writes Scott Henson, who has reported on and researched the Texas criminal justice system for years on his blog Grits for Breakfast. "Also, a DA's office isn't set up to manage an evidence room -- which would be required to maintain a legitimate chain of custody for seized electronic items -- the way police departments and crime labs routinely do."

Phones are commonly seized during investigations now, and the District Attorney's Office will have to invest considerable resources into being able to keep up with that high volume, not to mention the large amounts of processing power needed to analyze digital evidence.

"There are a lot of ways this could get screwed up," Henson writes.

The reason Watkins gives for starting his own forensic lab seems fair enough. He says only the FBI and U.S. Secret Service are capable of analyzing digital forensic evidence, and that a "reliance" on the two agencies created a large backlog and has slowed down many cases.

"Numerous times prosecutors had to reset cases for trial because the forensic examinations on the evidence had not been conducted, essentially costing the county and taxpayers money," Watkins says in the press release. "The digital forensics lab housed in the Dallas DA's office will help expedite the process of getting cases to trial."

But a quick Google search will give you a list of private labs in the Dallas area that can analyze digital evidence, and that have contracted with government agencies. One is Cyber Defense Labs, a Dallas-based private company that already provides the kind of analysis Watkins wants to start from scratch in his office. Another is E-Investigations, which has offices in Texas' four major cities. It too provides the kind of analysis Watkins wants in-house.

Henson says most police departments in Texas use private digital forensic labs, and the lab employees act as expert witnesses during trials.

Plus, these labs already have a legitimate chains of evidence in place, similar to ones used to ensure blood evidence isn't contaminated. Gary Huestis, the director of digital forensics for E-Investigations, says his company follows a specific process to make sure what is collected in the field is the same evidence that appears in court.

Each piece of digital evidence is assigned what's called a "hash" value, which is essentially a verification that this is the condition in which a crime-scene investigator found a certain piece of digital evidence, be it emails, text messages or pictures.

Mike Saylor, the executive director of Cyber Defense Labs, says his company keeps track of every person who's handled the digital evidence so if the question comes up in trial the answer is readily available. The company also uses computers called "write-blockers" that prohibit an analyst from "writing" on, or tampering with, digital evidence collected from a crime scene.

And digital evidence does have an advantage over bodily fluids: It can be duplicated exactly, meaning prosecutors could get, if not the originals, copies of the exact same evidence that they wish to collect from an existing third-party.

Watkins' office did not return a request for comment.

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Sky Chadde
Contact: Sky Chadde

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