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Monday, June 18, 2012

The Houston Crime Lab: The Nation's Worst

     The fact that forensic science is a service commonly delivered by government agencies makes solving its problems a real challenge. Government is slow, resistant to change, and difficult to hold accountable. The stratified nature of our criminal justice system--federal, state, county, and local levels of law enforcement--and the adversarial nature of the trial process, exacerbates the difficulties of improving crime lab services. Most problems in forensic science can be placed into three general categories: personnel, jurisprudence (courts and law), and science itself. The principal source of the problems within the Houston Police Department's crime laboratory have involved personnel.

     Since 2003, the Houston Crime Laboratory has been a disgrace to forensic science. At times the lab's services have been so subpar the entire operation has been shut down. Physical evidence has been lost, tampered with, and contaminated. Convictions have been overturned due to discredited forensic analysis. Lab personnel have resigned, been suspended, and indicted. Because of a decade of scandal, corruption, and incompetence, innocent defendants have been convicted, and guilty persons set free.

     Forensic science is supposed to improve the quality of criminal justice, not make it worse. If you want to know what can go bad in forensic science, study the recent history of the Houston Crime Laboratory. It's a textbook of failure.  

     In the field of DNA analysis, the backbone of any major forensic science operation, the work of the Houston lab has been particularly atrocious. In 2008, plagued by backlogs, evidence contamination, and inaccurate test results, the DNA unit had to be closed. There have also been persistent problems in the latent fingerprint, firearms identification, and toxicology sections of the lab. In 2010, an audit disclosed 7,000 untested rape kits sitting in the evidence room. That year a lab supervisor quit over the number in inaccurate blood-alcohol test results.

     On June 6, 2012, the Houston City Council voted 15-2 to hand control of the crime lab to an independent 9-member board. The $21 million a year operation will be overseen by lawyers, academics, business people, and a state legislator. I would  hope that at least some of these board members know something about forensic science. Only time will tell if taking control of the crime lab from the Houston Police Department will end a decade of forensic science disgrace. Separating lab personnel from the direct influence of law enforcement should make these scientists more objective. Perhaps the reorganization will mark the start of a new era of forensic science in Houston. 

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