Forensic Evidence in Arizona: Reforms for Victims and Defendants

Valena E. Beety 
Professor of Law
Deputy Director of the Academy for Justice
Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

Arizona is particularly well situated to increase its lab independence and to serve additional members of the criminal legal community: namely, defendants and victims.

This Article recognizes the strengths of the current forensic evidence system in Arizona and proposes innovative reforms appropriate for labs that are leaders in the field. Arizona is particularly well situated to increase its lab independence and to serve additional members of the criminal legal community: namely, defendants and victims.

Regarding defendants, this Article recommends greater transparency and accessibility to fundamental scientific lab findings for defense attorneys, similar to the practices of well-known independent crime labs such as the Houston Forensic Science Center. Additionally, the volunteer-run Arizona Forensic Science Advisory Committee can ensure greater integrity for forensic evidence in the courtroom if it is staffed, ideally with a staff attorney.

Regarding victims, this Article proposes that police departments shift resources to hire more civilian crime scene investigators. More civilian investigators can increase responsiveness to property crimes for victims and also identify the scope of the property crime problem in regularly impacted neighborhoods. Economically struggling neighborhoods are frequently overpoliced for controlled substances violations, yet law enforcement is simultaneously under- responsive to victims of property crime in these communities.

These proposals in the interest of defendants, victims, and the integrity of the Arizona criminal legal system may be more likely to occur alongside ultimate independence for the Arizona crime labs. Independent labs would respond directly to the Governor rather than serve within the Department of Public Safety and individual police departments.

Key Findings:

  • The Arizona Forensic Science Advisory Committee currently has neither funding nor full- time staff, despite the national problem of faulty forensic evidence leading to wrongful convictions.

  • Prosecutors may not know they have exculpatory and material scientific evidence, which they are required to disclose pursuant to Brady and Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 15.1, until just before trial or after a defendant has pled guilty. This scientific information can be shared early and systematically by crime labs to both parties in a criminal case, avoiding any failures to disclose pretrial or pre-plea.

  • Lab portal access for defense attorneys to scientific results creates greater transparency, emphasizes the independence of the crime labs, and resolves Brady discovery issues because forensic evidence is available to both parties throughout the proceedings.

  • Burglaries and home invasions in low-income neighborhoods near Phoenix are under- investigated by law enforcement. Consequentially, these residents suffer a lack of response in addition to loss of their possessions. Our Arizona Crime Victim Compensation Program does not compensate victims of property crimes.

  • For property crimes, civilian crime scene investigators are less expensive and more successful at documenting the scene and solving the crime than sworn police officers with the same responsibility. We cannot know the scope or depth of the problem of burglaries if these cases are not investigated.

Key Recommendations:

  • The Arizona Department of Public Safety should fund a permanent staffer, preferably a staff attorney, for the all-volunteer Arizona Forensic Science Advisory Committee. A staff attorney could, in addition to training judges and attorneys, coordinate forensic experts and assist parties with sample Daubert motions, following a similar structure in Oregon.

  • Arizona crime labs should use their existing online portal to provide scientific lab findings equally to both prosecutors and defense attorneys in a criminal case.

  • Police departments should prioritize hiring civilian crime scene investigators in order to listen to victims and be responsive to under-investigated property crimes in low-income neighborhoods.

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