First, the Travis County project lacks clarity. The numbers were unclear and confusing. One supporter of the Travis County plan stated the project would cost between $400 and $600 dollars per square-foot simply for the bricks and mortar. Williamson County would be expected to contribute between $6- and $8 million, while continuing to pay the cost of each autopsy. The fine folks of Williamson County know the value of a dollar. We are fiscally very conservative. A project costing $600 per square-foot would put many of us in the morgue.
Second, we have different values than Travis County. People move to Williamson County because of our values. We like the tough on crime attitude and our small-town feel. Our elected officials have a strong track record of working together. Is it wise for us to collaborate on a multi-million dollar project when our political, financial and philosophical views are so divergent? I don’t think so.
Third, the plan lacks vision. We are a people from strong stock. It is time for us to be independent and be visionary leaders. Williamson County is one of the fastest-growing counties in America. Within the next 25 to 30 years, we will exceed Travis County in size.Reasons one and three are essentially the same ("lacks clarity," "lacks vision") and the economics of the proposal are a judgment call, even if rhetoric like "put many of us in the morgue" sounds like silly hyperbole. On its face, one would think both counties would benefit from economies of scale and that it'd be cheaper in the long run to run just one shop, though the devil inevitably lies in the details. This is an area where skimping on costs up front can generate larger costs and delays on the back end. Running a crime lab involves ongoing investments in both lab tech and personnel. It's not something counties should try to do on the cheap. The Houston Chronicle opined several years ago that, "In Houston, we're now paying a high cost for trying too hard to save money on forensics."
But it's reason number two that raises a big red flag. Whether Williamson County residents have a "tough on crime attitude" or a "small-town feel" should have zero implications for how a crime lab does its business. Crime labs operating essentially in the pocket of law enforcement have created big headaches for the agencies that run them - ask the City of Houston and most recently, the state of Massachusetts, where lab techs viewed themselves as part of the law enforcement team instead of acting as independent scientists rigorously evaluating evidence.
Notably, eliminating conflicts of interest and cognitive bias were big reasons the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 recommended making crime labs independent of law enforcement agencies. There's too much potential for cross-contamination when police and prosecutors are in a position to pressure scientists for the results they want.
The Michael Morton case out of Williamson County provides an excellent example of how biased science can lead to catastrophic results. Robert Bayardo, the Travis County medical examiner who testified in Morton's case, was exactly the sort of ME who viewed his role as an agent of the prosecution instead of an independent, objective scientist. (Bayardo notoriously never took notes during autopsies so that defense counsel couldn't later subpoena them.) Texas Montly's Pam Colloff described how Bayardo changed his testimony to implicate Morton after meeting with prosecutors:
Originally, based on his belief that she had eaten dinner as late as 11 p.m., Bayardo had found that Christine could have died as late as 6 a.m., a half hour after Michael left for work. But the medical examiner would later testify that he made that determination when “I didn’t know all the facts. I didn’t know when she had her last meal.” Bayardo changed his estimate shortly after [prosecutors] Boutwell and Anderson visited the City Grill and retrieved a credit card receipt showing that Michael had paid for their meal at 9:21 p.m. According to Bayardo’s revised time of death, Christine could not have died after 1:30 a.m.Though Bayardo told Morton's attorneys he was "very much disturbed" that prosecutor (now judge) Ken Anderson misrepresented his forensic testimony to the jury, he never stepped forward to say so until DNA testing exonerated Morton a quarter-century later. Morton's exoneration was an internationally publicized disgrace for Williamson County, but it sounds like Judge Gravell is willing to risk replicating that approach.
This conclusion was based on an examination of her partially digested stomach contents, a notoriously imprecise method for determining the time of death that was not recognized, even 26 years ago, as sound science. Bayardo’s math also defied logic; although the time that the Mortons’ dinner ended had been revised by less than two hours, he had adjusted the estimated time of death more dramatically, by nearly five hours. Still, his conclusion was crucial to the state’s case: besides [Morton's son] Eric, the only person who had been with Christine between 9:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. was Michael.
From an economic perspective, one can debate whether Williamson County should own and operate its own crime lab. But to argue based on the county's "values" that it needs a pro-law enforcement crime lab and medical examiner's office defies basic ethics and common sense. Science should stand on its own, independent of the values held by jurors who hear the evidence or the voters electing the judges and DA. It's fairly stunning to see that argument made in Williamson County so soon in the aftermath of the Michael Morton exoneration.