Press "Enter" to skip to content

Bailey calls for Regional Crime Lab

HOUSTON– The DNA section of the Houston Police Department Crime Lab has been forced to close again. The most recent closure was a result of a change in state law that prohibits testimony in state courts from analysts who are not certified.
The law was changed by legislation authored by State Representative Kevin Bailey after the crime lab was closed in December 2002. The law Bailey passed came into play when the head of the DNA section resigned during an investigation into allegations of cheating on a recent proficiency test. Once the head of the department left, the lab no longer met the qualifications for accreditation. A recently completed internal affair’s investigation revealed that she “failed to use sound judgment” while administering the August 2007 exam. Two other employees were suspended.
“It’s time to seriously consider taking the crime lab away from HPD and creating an independent lab under the medical examiner like they did in
Bexar County,” said Bailey. “It’s very clear that the City of
Houston is incapable of running a crime lab that is fair and also has a high degree of integrity. It is also clear that the District Attorney under Chuck Rosenthal’s leadership has abused his authority by knowingly using tainted evidence from this incompetent lab that is also guilty of misconduct. Removing the lab from the criminal justice system may be the only answer.”
State law specifies that physical evidence subjected to forensic analysis is not admissible in a criminal case if, at the time of the analysis or the time the evidence is submitted to the court, the crime laboratory conducting the analysis was not accredited. Historically the
HPD crime lab operated without accreditation prior to be closed in December 2002. Under new management the lab received provisional accreditation in June 2006.
“ The last time the crime lab closed we were faced with scientific incompetence and now it is a lack of integrity. We need to know that everyone is treated fairly in our criminal justice system, that evidence is analyzed correctly, and that an analyst never again takes a witness stand in a criminal trial claiming to be an expert when they are not. We were all told years ago that DNA was infallible and we wouldn’t have innocent people being convicted. Well, we forgot about human error and misconduct,” says Bailey.

An independent investigation into the prior failings of the HPD crime lab that cost the city more than $5.0 million was concluded in June 2007. The final report stated that over a 15-year period prior to the DNA/Serology sections closing HPD and the city failed to provide the crime lab with adequate resources to meet the growing demand for services. Crime lab management recognized as early as 1996 that accreditation was becoming necessary but training for lab analysts was one of the first areas of the budget that was reduced as funding became tight.
According to the investigative report by the time the outside audit was performed in 2001, the lab was in a shambles. The roof leaked and they had operated without a supervisor for years so no one was advocating for the needs of the department. The staff was underpaid, under trained and generating mistake ridden casework that was poorly documented. The work being performed did not meet generally accepted scientific principles and posed a major risk of contributing to a miscarriage of justice.
“It was a failure of a critical part of the criminal justice system. Lab analysts failed in both the work that they did and the work they failed to do. Innocent people like Josiah Sutton were convicted on faulty analysis while criminals were left walking our streets,” said Bailey. “The sections of the crime lab with the highest rates of faulty testing, DNA and Serology, do the analysis that is typically performed in the most serious cases such as homicides and sexual assaults.”
Some areas of the crime lab were found to be doing high quality work including trace evidence, firearms, toxicology and questioned documents.
Some areas of the lab that performed quality work, like questioned documents, were actually underutilized. The crime labs questioned documents section handled only 11 cases in 2205 and 9 cases in 2006. A police department, in a city the size of Houston, should have been generating a significantly higher level of work for the document examiner, he added.
When the director of the crime lab appeared before a committee Chaired by Bailey this past August, the lab still did not have an electronic tracking system for evidence. They relied on a paper-based system for tracking the chain of custody as well as the results of tests performed on evidence. Plans are currently underway to provide the crime lab with a modern information management system.