The Houston Crime Laboratory: A continuing model of what is wrong?

It’s been long known that the Houston Crime Laboratory has struggled for a long time.

Huston Crime Laboratory DNA Section
Huston Crime Laboratory DNA Section

According to the relevant historical context can be summed up as follows:

The public crisis that eventually led to the hiring of an independent investigator to review the Crime Lab’s operations began on November 11, 2002, with the first in a series of investigative news reports that aired on KHOU–Channel 11, a local Houston television station.  These television news reports, which were reported to be the product of a three–month investigation performed by KHOU in consultation with outside forensics scientists, severely criticized the forensic analysis performed by the DNA/Serology Section of the Crime Lab in a number of specific cases.

Within a month of the airing of the first of these news reports, Acting Chief of Police Timothy Oettmeier commissioned an outside review of the Crime Lab’s DNA/Serology Section.  Representatives from the Texas Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) Crime Lab Headquarters and the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office performed an audit of the Crime Lab’s DNA/Serology section over the course of two days, December 12 and 13, 2002.  On December 18, 2002, based on the preliminary oral report of the auditors prior to the issuance of their final audit report, HPD suspended the performance of all DNA analysis by the Crime Lab.  The final report documenting the audit’s findings was issued on January 10, 2003.  DNA work by the Crime Lab has remained continuously suspended to this day, although HPD is hoping to re–open the DNA Section by the end of this calendar year.

In early 2003, HPD, in close consultation with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, began a time–consuming process of identifying all cases in which some form of DNA analysis had been performed by the Crime Lab.  This process evolved into a long–term re-testing project coordinated among HPD, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, and outside DNA laboratories, which has identified for re-testing a total of 407 criminal cases involving DNA analysis performed by the Crime Lab.

On or about February 21, 2003, Donald Krueger, the head of the Crime Lab, retired after serving in that capacity for approximately eight years.  Following Mr. Krueger’s retirement, Robert Bobzean, a senior manager in the Crime Lab, took over leadership of the Lab on an interim basis.  In mid–July of that year, Frank Fitzpatrick of the Orange County (California) Sheriff-Coroner’s Office was appointed Interim Director of the Crime Lab as part of a contract entered into by the City with the National Forensic Science Technology Center (“NFSTC”), a non–profit entity whose mission is “to provide quality systems support, training and education to the forensic science community in the United States.”  During the course of its consultation with the Crime Lab, the NFSTC produced written evaluations of various aspects of the Crime Lab.  In October 2003, questions arose related to the performance of the Toxicology Section, which led to the suspension that month of toxicological analysis by the Crime Lab.  Also in October 2003, Irma Rios was appointed to be the new permanent head of the Crime Lab.  Ms. Rios had been with the DPS crime laboratory system for over nineteen years and was a member of the outside audit team that reviewed the Crime Lab’s DNA/Serology Section in December 2002.

The Internal Affairs Division investigated several Crime Lab cases for both criminal and administrative violations. As a result of the investigations, various administrative cites were sustained. Several supervisors resigned in lieu of termination. Based on the severity of the violations, discipline ranged from a written reprimand to 28 days of suspension. All of the internal affairs investigations were reviewed by the District Attorney’s Office for criminal misconduct. Two separate Grand Juries reviewed the evidence in the crime lab investigations and no indictments were returned. (What a shocker!)


Now there is a new wrinkle in the saga:

City Leaders Blast Houston’s Crime Lab

by: Laurie Johnson

Houston’s crime lab continues to spark debate at City Hall. Councilmembers questioned why they should continue to authorize contracts for the lab when the city intends to outsource its evidence to an independent lab in the future.

The Houston Police Department’s beleaguered crime lab took more criticism from a few city councilmembers as they challenged a five year contract to purchase DNA kits for HPD, another contract to analyze the crime lab’s backlog of rape kits stored on site for years and a contract for fingerprint analysis.

This is Councilmember C.O. Bradford, who was once HPD’s police chief.

“For years now, I’ve been asking, and a year and a half as a councilmember, where is the long range plan for the crime lab? What are we going to do to resolve the outstanding issues associated with the Houston Police Department or crime lab. And it’s fair to say that my experience, my background and my involvement with some of the past issues in the crime lab put me in a unique position to stand publicly and say that we need a plan.”

Bradford says police chiefs are not scientists and are not qualified to oversee crime lab operations.

“Therefore, we need to move aggressively, in my view, to remove the crime lab and its associated activities to an independent entity outside the scope of the Houston Police Department, because we really do need supervision and oversight from personnel that are scientists and have the proper background to oversee what’s going on with the analysis.”

Houston Mayor Annise Parker says she agrees that the city shouldn’t be operating its own crime lab. She supports the idea of an independent regional lab that would provide services for the city and Harris County along with other area municipalities.

“One of the difficulties we have is we don’t have any money — any spare money. The county really doesn’t either. We believe that it’s only appropriate to have an independent crime lab. And I think the preference at the county is for them to control the crime lab and they’d like us to brings ours under them.”

Councilmember Jolanda Jones also voiced her concerns about the city’s lack of a plan. Jones, who is an attorney, dealt with crime lab issues back in 2002 on one of her legal cases and says she’s tired of still talking about it.

“I will tell you to this day in every discipline at the crime lab, collection of evidence is problematic. But we are trying to pretend like the crime lab is okay.”

The council approved the three contracts for crime lab services, although Councilmembers Jones, Bradford and Mike Sullivan voted against the fingerprint contract.

Here! Here! to Councilmember Bradford when he says the truth: “police chiefs are not scientists and are not qualified to oversee crime lab operations” and that scientists should oversee the science and the administration of the laboratory.

C.O. Bradford
Councilmember C.O. Bradford

2 Responses to “The Houston Crime Laboratory: A continuing model of what is wrong?”

  • In your blog post “The Houston Crime Laboratory: A continuing model of what is wrong?” you quote Coun­cilmem­ber C.O. Brad­ford (Houston, TX) opining that police personnel should not oversee crime labs. I cannot agree more. However, more alarming than law enforcement control and influence over laboratory operations is their control and influence over scene investigation and processing. The best laboratory in the world (personnel, equipment, and other resources) cannot correct problems encountered or created in the field. Crime scenes are complex problems that require scientific thought. Errors (evidence that is overlooked or destroyed) and bias are significant problems, which cannot be corrected by a laboratory of the highest quality. Scene investigations occur with little-to-no QA/QC measures or oversight. Crime scene units are generally not accredited by any professional organization. The field is aware that problems exist in some laboratories, even in accredited labs with stringent QA/QC programs. How many errors occur in the field where there is no oversight??? We may never know, however, I assure you that this situation must change in order to better serve the criminal justice system and its clientele. Scientists must be permitted to enter the field, a domain controlled exclusively by law enforcement in most jurisdictions, to ensure that high quality scene investigations are performed. Generalists, those criminalists considered physical evidence specialists, must be given access and autonomy at scenes so that the proper scientific issues can be addressed, appropriate hypotheses framed, and relevant physical evidence properly collected and forwarded to the laboratory for analysis. These criminalists should also be involved in performing scientific reconstructions based on an analysis of the scene and laboratory data. A daunting challenge but not impossible.

  • sandra Olson says:

    With all the alarming problems with dna testing accuracy reliability and credibility, may I ask what the judges are doing allowing this into court at all?? With no regulation, no standardization, and no clinical trials to verify anything like the astounding 99.9 per cent accuracy the labs claim, what is it doing in court? It doesn’t meet the requirements of the evidence act. How did it get in at all? I am in canada, and up against the same situation. In my case after 20 years of trying to get the file for examination, some 8 or so pages of electrographs were released, NO identification for any of them, no consents, no chain of custody. And a continued refusal by any court to order the release of the file for examination. A monkey can type up a report and put anything they want on it. And it seems that is what is being done, worldwide. Why doesn’t anyone in the legal profession step forward and kick these guys out? As long as they can charge people money, and produce whatever they want and the court buys it, they don’t care. These are not ethical people here, they are the soapbox salesmen of the past new and re-invented. If you cut off the market for their product, you change the game. Better to have no evidence, then to have bad evidence. Consider this.

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