The Todd Willingham posthumous court of inquiry next week will be held in Judge Charlie Baird's court October 6-7, next Wednesday and Thursday. Concurrently, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Forensic Science Seminar will be held on the 7-8, or Thursday and Friday. I know I'm not the only person wondering how to split my time on Thursday, wondering where all the cool kids will be. :)
In preparation what we'll call, for lack of a better name, Flawed Forensic Science Week, I'm listening to some of the video from the Senate Criminal Justice Committee's September 7 hearing on forensic science, the first topic up that day, featuring Harris County DA Pat Lykos pleading for state funds to create a first-class regional crime lab in Houston (as opposed to the noble but failing and overtaxed second class lab they have now, was always the implication). Sen. Dan Patrick seemed particularly insistent on getting the DA to agree that the failure of the City of Houston to adequately fund their crime lab was putting the public at "risk."
I'm sure Lykos and others in Houston would like the state to pay for their crime lab's problems, but this is the wrong year to look to the state for a bailout. A quick look at the Department of Public Safety's Appropriations Request (p. 84, large pdf), which includes the agencies "mandatory" 5% cuts, shows them cutting crime lab services by more than $1.5 million in 2013 from the 2011 budgeted amount, despite rapidly rising caseloads and a growing demand for state funding of forensics. At DPS, according to the agency's LAR, the caseload is rapidly outdistancing the number of qualified warm bodies available to perform testing:
The potential of DNA testing is recognized by both the department and local agencies as the foremost criminal evidence advancement in our times. This has created a doubling in the demand for this service in just five years. The efficient processing of DNA samples from convicted offenders and from evidence in forensic cases is necessary for the success of the DNA program to assist in solving both violent and property crimes.DPS executive director Steve McCraw testified to the Criminal Justice Committee that DPS, which does not charge local departments for forensic services, handles about 50% of forensic examinations of all types statewide. The current waiting period for forensic requests is 9.75 months, said McCraw, who admitted that was "unacceptable." Whitmire, who earlier warned Lykos that the Lege wasn't normally in the business of subsidizing basic police functions, pointed out that DPS' policy basically subsidizes forensics for rural agencies while urban departments like Houston must pay for their own, wondering aloud if the arrangement wasn't a holdover from the days when rural legislators held disproportionate power at the capitol. It's a fair question.
The Crime Laboratory Service has also seen a 100% increase, over the past five years, in the number of blood samples submitted for alcohol testing in DWl cases
State Sen. Glenn Hegar asked whether too many things were being submitted for testing, and McCraw said the problem was "ubiquitous." Listening to the discussion I kept wondering: Isn't the obvious solution for the state to begin charging local agencies for forensic services? When local agencies must pay for testing out of their own budgets, they'll be more judicious about how much testing they request, and the revenue can be used to fix or potentially even absorb into the statewide system the large local forensic labs suffering from backlogs and errors.
Irma Rios from the Houston Crime Lab manages 70 employees, reports to an assistant chief, she said, and briefs the police chief personally once per quarter, but has never spoken to Mayor Annise Parker. For a mid-level civilian manager, then, she endured quite a grilling for her trouble of coming to Austin, offering few satisfactory answers to the questions raining down from the senatorial dais. Sen. Dan Patrick was disappointed that increases in staffing funded by a federal grant would not be sustained (and the employees would be let go) when the grant funding ran out. Rios disagreed Houston was operating a "broken system" at its crime lab, insisting that they could turn around cases in a week when the DA needed evidence for the grand jury, but Sen. Whitmire pointed out her testimony contradicted the DA and strongly implied she was in denial.
Interestingly, the Bexar County Crime Lab is a completely independent department from the police, the Sheriff, and the DA, reporting directly to the commissioners court, reported director Timothy Fallon. They bill agencies that refer forensics to them on a fee for service basis. Fallon said they are a "service provider for law enforcement." The number one complaint of customers is cost, he said.
That's all I have time for this afternoon. Happy Flawed Forensic Science Week!
RELATED: From the SA Express-News, see: "Complaint filed against medical examiner's office."