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World-Herald editorial: Memo shows Omaha-area crime lab merger need

World-Herald editorial: Memo shows Omaha-area crime lab merger need

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine is a proven, effective crime fighter. When he shares concerns about the performance and reputation of Omaha-area crime labs, it’s worth listening.

Kleine holds the view that local public safety — and ultimately taxpayers — would benefit from merging the separate county and city labs into a single, nationally accredited operation.

It makes so much sense.

Kleine says this as a lawyer who frequently uses the labs’ services. And as a prosecutor who has dealt with fallout from former county crime lab boss David Kofoed, who was convicted of evidence tampering.

And then there’s the situation surrounding the county’s new crime lab manager, who was brought in to clean things up after Kofoed but has been suspended since October. A hearing on her suspension has been delayed until May.

A three-page memo Kleine’s office has written for defense attorneys about lab problems indicates the need for a sense of urgency on this issue from city and county leaders.

The Douglas County Board and Omaha City Council need to act. No one would want political inertia to contribute to a suspected criminal walking free.

As recently detailed by World-Herald staff writer Todd Cooper, Kleine’s memo mentions the city lab’s botched ballistics test during a double murder investigation and an unrelated misidentified fingerprint, along with the county lab’s troubles that include the alleged poor handling of evidence by a manager.

The memo aims to calm or slow an anticipated onslaught of defense attorney arguments contending that the findings of neither the county nor city crime labs can be trusted.

Kleine says he took the unusual step of issuing the memo because case law demands prosecutors share any information that might cast doubts on the credibility of prosecution witnesses.

Another reason: He and the crime labs have nothing to hide.

Kleine’s willingness to publicly confront mistakes is good for both defense lawyers and the public. It’s good to know that crime lab problems are being audited and corrected.

Law-enforcement leaders, including Kleine, are pushing for a metropolitan crime lab that would merge Omaha and Douglas County crime labs into one unit that seeks national accreditation.

Besides the obvious efficiency of having one lab rather than two, prosecutors could point to the new structure, new procedures and improved training to verify that the work is being done at a high level.

Local crime lab employees are doing good work for the right reasons, Kleine said. He says many want to work for an accredited lab with higher standards and periodic audits.

“This is all about credibility,” Kleine said. “Accreditation doesn’t eliminate mistakes, but certainly it adds to the lab’s credibility.”

For taxpayers, public safety, justice for victims and those accused of crimes, creating one accredited crime lab is better than maintaining two that raise doubts.

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