In the latest disturbing news, evidence in 200 narcotics cases must be retested after an employee was suspended last week at the troubled Houston crime lab, reported Steve McVicker in the Houston Chronicle ("Houston crime suspends worker, reviews cases," Aug 8).
All officials will formally say is that the employee was behaving erratically, failed to store evidence properly, then failed to submit to a drug test. Taken together that sounds like they may believe the employee was allegedly stealing drugs from the crime lab. It wouldn't be the first time that's happened. For those who haven't followed the lab's woes, reports McVicker:
How can one crime lab fail to function properly in nearly all its major work areas? An investigation that cost Houston taxpayers $5.3 million recommended the crime lab be run by a "special master," but DA Chuck Rosenthal and police chief Harold Hurtt quashed the idea and promised they'd handle the situation. This instance lets us know they've got more problems, still, left to discover.
The Houston crime lab's work has been under scrutiny since 2002, when the DNA section was shut down after an independent audit raised red flags about analysis procedures. Inaccuracies were later found in four other lab divisions that test firearms, body fluids and controlled substances.
In June, a special investigator hired by the city released the findings of his two-year investigation of the lab. The report commended the city's efforts to rebuild the crime lab, but cited hundreds of "serious and pervasive" flaws in forensic cases mishandled by the lab's DNA and serology sections.
If there were sufficient capacity elsewhere to take up the slack, I'd argue the whole place should be shuttered. At a minimum what's needed is a massive, top-to-bottom re-working of the agency, a caseload reduction so lab staff may do fewer things well instead of many things poorly, and finally a housecleaning of massive proportions to root out managers and technicians who believe their job is to help the police (and themselves), not search for the truth.
For those looking for more on the topic, I offered a more detailed list of suggestions for reforming crime labs here. See also this post describing horror stories recounted at the Houston crime lab from the recent investigator's report (pdf).