Wednesday, January 05, 2005

ACLU of Texas crime lab testimony in Houston

Yesterday I went to Houston to testify at a Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing on the subject of the state's forensic science/crime lab crisis on behalf of the ACLU of Texas. (See the Houston Chronicle coverage here.)

I gave the commitee a one-pager on the topic along with oral testimony, and I append that text in its entirety below for any who are interested. (Regular Grits readers have seen some of these arguments before. For more on Texas' crime lab crisis see this House Research Organization policy brief. [pdf])

ACLU of Texas testimony to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee
Houston Community College Conference Center, January 4, 2005
By Scott Henson, Director, Police Accountability Project

Framed innocents in Tulia and Hearne and false convictions based on bad forensic analysis have created a crisis of confidence in Texas’ criminal justice system. Please consider the following as you move to fix it:

Set reasonable expectations:

Don’t view the issue as atomic – crime lab lapses are a microcosm within a system geared toward maximizing the ease with which convictions can be obtained. Innocent people aren’t convicted because one lab technician makes an error. Innocents are convicted when the actors in the system don’t care that innocents are convicted. This committee should examine all the reasons innocent people are convicted, including but not just limited to the role of forensics.

Don’t neglect other important innocence reforms:

The crime lab crisis is important, but as you fix it, make sure you fix other parts of the system that have contributed to the conviction of innocents.

  • Require corroboration of “snitch” evidence, just like confidential informants in undercover drug cases.
  • Require prosecutors to disclose discussions with “snitch” witnesses concerning the benefits the witness may receive in exchange for his testimony or cooperation and require that these discussions be reduced to writing.
  • Require that exculpatory evidence be disclosed in a timely fashion to the defense, and require that witnesses be entitled to view written witness statements against them.
  • Eliminate inconsistent theories of prosecution in multiple defendant cases.

Utilize the adversarial system:

Don’t expect too much from the proposed reform of creating a regional system of crime labs. DPS already operates a regional system, and crime labs in Lubbock and McAllen have had problems, too. What’s most needed to ensure the system’s integrity is independent verification.

The state should spend more money for indigent defendants to pay for lab costs and scientific investigations to refute shoddy state crime lab work. In other words, give the adversarial system enough resources to flesh out the truth. No one has a greater interest in ensuring that crime lab results are correct than defendants, so the most certain way to validate crime lab results is to let their attorneys hire experts to conduct independent analysis.

Texas should also expand defendants' discovery access to information about crime lab tests, allowing defendants to obtain labs' error rates and making the information admissible during trial.

Fund changes with Byrne grant money:

Federal “Byrne grants” are block grant funds distributed by the governor for state and local criminal justice needs. Byrne grant money could allow Harris County to pay for its lagging, underfunded drug courts, upgrade forensics labs, and maybe down the line help finance the launch of a public defender's office.

Currently, though, $3.5 million in Byrne money comes to Harris County to pay for the Harris County Organized Crime and Narcotics Task Force, which is run by the Baytown Police Department.

In the case of the “Tulia” drug sting, misconduct by that task force cost Amarillo taxpayers alone $5 million. Harris County today risks a similar outcome. The Harris County Sheriff pulled all its troops off the task force last year, but Harris taxpayers are still liable because the county signed on to the task force operating agreement. Baytown PD has had numerous recent police brutality incidents – including the beating death of Louis Torres and several Taser incidents criticized by Amnesty International – plus the task force itself this summer made national headlines after a failed raid instigated by officers who mistook a hibiscus plant for marijuana. That type of behavior creates huge liability risks, which would be ameliorated by shifting Byrne grant funds to pay for other priorities like crime labs.

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee recommended abolishing all Texas’ drug task forces in its recent Interim Report. If that recommendation is accepted, the Byrne grant money freed up could pay for needed improvements in Texas’ forensic labs.

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