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Police shutter print unit

Identification error, critical report cited

The Boston Police Department is shutting down and revamping its troubled fingerprint unit after it was blamed for a wrongful conviction and a consultant issued a blistering critique of its shortcomings.

Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole said yesterday that the unit, which tries to identify suspects by matching prints found at crime scenes with ones in police files, is "inadequate."

Since it would take two years to train officers to fix the problems, O'Toole said that labor relations administrators are already talking to the police union about letting the department hire previously trained civilian specialists to run the unit. If a deal can't be reached, she said, she will hire an outside consultant such as the one who reported on the unit's flaws late last week.

She said she is not completely ruling out having the outsiders handle the work while existing officers are trained for two years.

Until she finds a longer-term solution, State Police will do the work, while the police unit will continue the less scientifically rigorous duties of indexing fingerprints.

The shutdown is a blow to a big-city police department that holds itself up as a national model. "It's not typical at all," said Dr. Michael Baden, a former chief medical examiner in New York state and a prominent forensic pathologist. "Normally things have to be pretty bad before a lab is shut down."

State Police have been verifying the conclusions of the Boston unit's crime scene print analyses since February, about the time O'Toole came aboard and reviewed the wrongful conviction of Stephan Cowans.

Until a judge freed him in January, Cowans spent six years in prison after the unit wrongly matched his print with a fingerprint from a glass mug found at the Egleston Square crime scene where Officer Gregory Gallagher was shot and wounded in 1997.

"Out of all the bad needs to come some good," O'Toole said in an interview. "The latent print section is inadequate. They're not up to industry standard."

Shortly after she was sworn in on Feb. 19, O'Toole called Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly and asked him to investigate the role of two police fingerprint analysts in Cowans's wrongful conviction.

After a four-month investigation, Reilly determined there was not enough evidence to support perjury charges against the two officers, Rosemary McLaughlin and Dennis LeBlanc. But O'Toole placed both officers, one of whom has since retired, on administrative leave. She also publicly lambasted the unit for its "low standards and a lack of professionalism."

Within days of joining the department, O'Toole said she also decided it was necessary for the department's fingerprint lab to receive accreditation from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. She soon realized that such accreditation would be impossible without a major overhaul of the unit. She brought in Ron Smith, an FBI-recommended fingerprint specialist who was already investigating what went wrong in the Cowans case, to review the entire operation.

O'Toole could not say what specific problems Smith cited in last week's report beyond inadequate training, but she said his analysis was alarming enough that she concluded all activity must be suspended in the unit.

O'Toole blamed many of the problems in the unit on the department itself and not rogue officers within it.

"It's important that I say there are some people working in latent prints -- put McLaughlin and LeBlanc aside -- who have really tried hard," O'Toole said. "I understand some have gone and paid on their own for training. There are some people who, the department failed them. They didn't receive appropriate training."

James Starrs, a fingerprinting analyst and teacher of forensic science and law at George Washington University, said the problems in the unit are entrenched.

"I have never seen anything but problems with the Boston fingerprint lab," Starrs said. "I've never seen quality work from them . . . They're police sergeants, not scientists doing the work. That's a serious problem, because they don't have the scientific standards to abide by."

Starrs said he worked for Cowans's defense team and is now consulting on the retrial of Terry Patterson, who is appealing his conviction in a Boston police detective's killing.

On Tuesday, a Suffolk Superior Court judge denied Patterson's motion to suppress fingerprint evidence that was used to convict him in 1995. His prior conviction in the murder of John Mulligan, who was shot five times in the face as he sat in his car at a Roslindale shopping mall, was overturned because of ineffective counsel.

Starrs said judges and juries place too much faith in fingerprints. "You can see a sneer on the judges' faces about challenging fingerprints -- next thing, it'll be motherhood and apple pie," he said.

O'Toole said she is eager to fix the department's fingerprint problems as part of her plans for change, which also include how police conduct suspect lineups and record confessions.

"It's the whole issue of identification procedures; it's extremely important," O'Toole said. "And it follows on these wrongful convictions that happened in the '80s and '90s."

Suzanne Smalley can be reached at ssmalley@globe.com.

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