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Private Utah DNA Lab Faces Scrutiny After Crime Evidence Said To Be Mishandled

Photo of crime evidence

This story has been updated

One of the largest DNA crime labs in the country, Salt Lake City-based Sorenson Forensics, faces increasing scrutiny following allegations that it mishandled evidence, first in Kentucky and now in Illinois.

Sorenson Forensics, which analyzes DNA evidence in criminal cases, has been the target of a probe by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, a state watchdog agency charged with investigating misconduct within forensic labs. The commission had been expected to issue a report this week on its review of the lab, detailing a handful of incidents in which Sorenson analysts had contaminated DNA samples.

But after an incident involving a three-decade-old homicide in Chicago came to light following a recent complaint from the Innocence Project, the Texas commission said Friday the report will now be delayed while investigators look into the claim.

“We’re just not prepared to issue the final report,” Lynn Garcia, general counsel for the commission, told members at a quarterly meeting last week.

The extent of the potentially tainted cases was not immediately clear, as there is some dispute between the Texas commission and the crime lab.

Kent Harman, Sorenson’s CEO, said he too had requested the report’s release to be delayed after reading a draft, which he said contained “paragraph after paragraph of hearsay and subjective opinions.”

“They say, “OK, we found seven errors in five years of work.’ That's .0009 percent of an error,” Harman said in an interview. “Compare that with a public lab. That is miniscule.”

The commission’s delay in releasing its report stems from the case of Kevin Bailey, who had been sentenced to 80 years in prison for a fatal Illinois stabbing. Bryce Benjet, a senior staff attorney for the Innocence Project, alerted the agency last month to a “quality issue” he had uncovered at Sorenson two years ago.

Benjet discovered that Sorenson analysts had combined a piece of blood-stained towel from the site of the murder with a swatch of fabric from his client’s pants, according to the letter.

The results “incorrectly associated my client with crime scene evidence,” Benjet wrote to the commission. “Had this error not come to light, my client would not have been exonerated after 28 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.”  

Harman defended the lab’s work, saying the company followed instructions given by the Innocence Project’s attorneys, who initially told Sorenson to combine the small swaths of fabric, so they could pull a full DNA profile. Benjet took issue with this characterization, insisting the Innocence Project played no role in providing testing directions.

At Friday’s commission meeting, Garcia appeared less than satisfied with Sorenson’s explanation.  

“Why would any serologist think that it’s OK to put two different, visually distinct items of clothing [together]? Why would anybody combine that?” she asked the commission. “I don’t care what the instructions say. You should know better. You should stop. … This has tremendous repercussions.”

Garcia says the new draft of the report will likely be issued after the agency’s next meeting in August.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include a response to Sorenson's statement that the company followed instructions from the Innocence Project. Benjet challenged that characterization, insisting the Innocence Project played no role in providing testing directions.

Rebecca Ellis is a Kroc Fellow with NPR. She grew up in New York City and graduated from Brown University in 2018 with a Bachelor's in Urban Studies. In college, Rebecca served as a managing editor at the student newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, and freelanced for Rhode Island's primary paper, the Providence Journal. She has spent past summers as an investigator at the Bronx Defenders, a public defender's office in the Bronx, New York, and as a reporter at the Miami Herald, filing general assignment stories and learning to scuba dive.
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