Monday, October 05, 2009

Backlog of DNA cases complicates Houston crime lab's bias problems

Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt may believe the Houston Crime Lab's problems are all solved, but the agency still doesn't have a sufficient budget to handle the volume of DNA testing requests the lab receives. Report the Houston Chronicle ("Thousands of cases in Houston await DNA tests," Oct. 2):
Nearly 4,000 rape kits and other evidence haven't undergone DNA testing — about seven years after major problems at the Houston lab came to light.

Crime Lab Director Irma Rio told the Houston Chronicle in Friday editions that the evidence involves homicides, sexual assaults and burglaries and includes a backlog of about 1,000 active cases in which police have asked for DNA testing. Testing would no longer be helpful in many of the inactive cases, police said.

The city announced plans Thursday for a $1.3 million upgrade for the understaffed lab. Still, officials say the backlog has increased the urgency for a proposed regional forensic lab that would merge the labs of Houston and Harris County.

"If you have all those rape kits that are untested, that means there are predators, sexually violent predators, that are free to roam," Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos said.

DNA experts say labs should be moved out of the buildings police investigators use to avoid the appearance of an "incestuous" relationship.

This is a problem everywhere in the state, not just in Houston. And it's not just DNA but also drug cases backed up at Texas crime labs. In Tarrant County, officials say lab backlogs have contributed to jail overcrowding. And labs run by the Department of Public Safety are also experiencing major backlogs. These waiting lists are likely to get longer thanks the advent of "touch DNA," which ensures DNA testing will be possible in many more cases in the future. Much less certain is whether current lab capacity can handle that many new cases.

Equally distressing, despite assurances from Chief Hurtt that the crime lab now is new and improved, HPD hasn't addressed the most important reform that's been suggested by virtually everyone who's examined the troubled lab: Performing forensic analysis at an independent agency separate from law enforcement and out from under control of the police. The biggest concern at the Houston crime lab wasn't incompetence but corruption: "some lab results appeared to have been altered to bolster police testimony," reported the Chron, in part because forensic workers considered themselves part of the prosecution's team instead of independent analysts. But that too-close relationship with police is the one thing nobody has been willing to tackle.

Perhaps the suggested creation of a proposed regional lab would be a good opportunity to establish a neutral agency separate from law enforcement to manage forensic testing in Houston and Harris County, while simultaneously expanding capacity. That would make more sense to me than throwing lots more money at Houston PD for labwork under its current setup.

1 comment:

Boyness said...

Houston has no business having a crime lab. Period. How many more innocent people will be convicted and how many rapists will roam free because HPD cannot and will not gets it's $#/T together??