Across the country, two primary factors loom as the culprits behind this epidemic of ersatz evidence. The first is severe underfunding that makes it difficult to hire or retain competent technicians. The second is the way many jurisdictions place crime labs within law enforcement agencies — an arrangement that prompts lab technicians to view themselves as "advocates for the prosecution" rather than the impartial scientists they need to be.
Added together, these two factors help foster police crime labs that are run by technicians with relatively weak scientific backgrounds who believe their job has a single objective: to generate testimony that will produce convictions. These factors are at the root of police lab fiascos not only in Houston, but also in cities throughout the country. ...When lab technicians view themselves as part of a law enforcement "team," they may feel compelled to falsify or exaggerate testimony to support the prosecution's case. A previous investigation into shenanigans in the HPD crime lab documented how a supervisor had interpreted similar scientific evidence in opposite ways in two rape cases — and graciously changed their testimony to fit the prosecution's needs. Forensic Science Communications has noted that when forensic scientists have a close relationship with law enforcement, scientific objectivity can be "hindered."
That's been my point in the series of Grits posts where I've ruefully declared that accuracy has become optional in forensic science. Marrus described a case from her own experience where faulty crime lab evidence accused an innocent person, and suggests a structural solution worth considering:
The problem of compromised test results is not new, and almost every criminal attorney has first-hand experience with poorly managed forensic labs and the "conclusions" they can generate. When I served as a public defender in California more than a decade ago, one of my juvenile clients faced assault charges based on blood found on his clothes. My client claimed the blood was from his dog and the police lab asserted it was human blood. When a second test by an independent source confirmed the serum was canine rather than human, the charges were dismissed and an innocent child was set free. Others are not so lucky, and the problems associated with flawed evidence strike across all races, genders and ages.
There's an easy, albeit expensive, way to fix the national crisis in forensic crime labs. Lawmakers should find a way to allocate more funding for these labs, and they should remove these facilities from the control of law enforcement agencies.
I think that'd be a great start, to make crime labs relied upon by the prosecution independent from law enforcement. If I had my way, though, I'd also expand indigent defendants' access to independent lab testing to let the adversarial system work like it's supposed to.
In every other field of human endeavor, science isn't valid unless the results are replicable by others. In the criminal justice system, though, for the most part whatever the police lab says, goes. And for them, too often, getting the right results isn't as important as being a part of the "team."
Paying for defense experts would be expensive, but the alternative, in economists' jargon, is for innocent defendants to pay the "externalities" for avoided costs, as well as the courts themselves, not in money but in lost credibility.
Those prices are too steep to bear.
Here's the final report from the independent investigator. Elsewhere, Kuff is underwhelmed at official reactions, and Bigjolly at the Lone Star Times is incredulous that Houston spent $5.3 million on the report and now refuses to enact its recommendations. That's certainly a startling aspect of official reaction. See also recent Grits coverage: