Allegations of critical lapses at Texas crime labs, including one of the state’s most vaunted facilities, were among a dozen complaints reported to the Texas Forensic Science Commission and made public this week by the fledgling state agency that investigates misconduct by the forensic science community.
An ex-employee at the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences complained about tainted rape kits, blood stock and DNA analysis at the Dallas crime lab.
"This allegation represents what is valuable about the commission’s work to the people of Texas," said Stephen Saloom, policy director of the Innocence Project in New York.
But officials with the institute say that the allegations are false and that the whistle-blower was fired for poor performance. The ex-employee has sued the county for wrongful termination. At one point, county officials said, the whistle-blower offered to retract his complaint and settle the case for $250,000.
"He could not pass the training program for a forensic scientist," said David Alex, administrative chief in the Dallas County district attorney’s office. "The allegations he was lodging were unfounded primarily because he was not even qualified to make those allegations."
The complaints released this week were filed with the commission over a two-year period.
Copies were released after the Texas attorney general’s office said they had to be made public in response to a Public Information Act request from the Star-Telegram.
Most surprising to the North Texas criminal justice community was criticism of the institute and its chief of physical evidence, Tim Sliter, who was a panelist at legislative hearings that drew attention to debacles at the Houston Crime Lab in 2005.
"SWIFS has a good reputation," said Gary Udashen, a criminal defense attorney in Dallas. "If it’s true, there are all kinds of problems. I guess everybody just thought SWIFS was a cut above your average lab."
I'm glad MSM reporters are digging deeper into the Forensic Science Commission and problems at state crime labs. Unfortunately, the FSC as presently constituted is ill-equipped to investigate such complaints, much less rectify the problems they find.
At a meeting earlier this week of the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, Keith Hampton of the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (and Democratic candidate for the Court of Criminal Appeals) suggested that crime labs be required to regularly perform quality-assurance testing and publish error rates for each discipline at each individual crime lab. While some legislators thought it might be prejudicial if error rates were admitted in court, everyone on the committee agreed they should be calculated and made public, and there was general agreement that some judges would be inclined to admit such data into evidence, under current law, while others may not.
The Forensic Science Commission is the only oversight agency we have for Texas crime labs, but it's weak and ineffectual as a regulatory body and from all outward appearances its board has become politicized. On that score, Hampton made another suggestion I agreed with: That the FSC board including the chairmanship should be controlled by scientists, not attorneys. Presently seven of the nine members are scientists, but either a criminal defense attorney or now a prosecutor have chaired the commission since its inception.
RELATED: The next meeting of the Forensic Science Commission will be held Jan. 29 at the Courtyard Marriott, 1725 W. Fillmore Ave., Harlingen, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m..