It’s been long known that the Houston Crime Laboratory has struggled for a long time.
According to www.hpdlabinvestigation.org 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:
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.