Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tuff-on-crime ideology should play no role in Williamson County forensic science

The Austin Statesman last week published an ill-considered op-ed by Williamson County Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell titled "Time to plan for medical examiner's office and crime lab" (Aug. 22) arguing that Williamson County should create its own medical examiner's office and crime lab instead of continuing to rely on larger Travis County. Here are the three reasons Gravell argues Williamson County should reject a proposal for joint expansion and chart its own path:
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.

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.
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.

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.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

The "tuff on crime" rationale is very problematic and disturbing, no question about it. The saving grace here is the vast majority of forensic scientists understand and take very seriously their ethical and professional responsibilities. This is especially true of the new classes of forensic scientists graduating from university. So hopefully if Williamson County does its own thing, they will hire competent and ethical scientists who understand their role, regardless of what this op-ed says.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I suppose, 12:40, or at least I hope so. But Annie Dookhan was from the younger generation and she was in the bag for the prosecution. Leadership matters and it sounds like Williamson County officials are looking for a crime lab to act as an arm of law enforcement instead of as independent scientists.

Brunner said...

In the discussions regarding the proposed Williamson County crime lab / medical examiner, matters such as cost to the taxpayers, quality of results, independence from influence, and staff professionalism have ALL been discussed and ALL have a seat at the table. Its not just about dollars and cents nor is it about creating another "arm of law enforcement". Rather its about a county which is slated for the kind of long-term population growth that will see more folks living in Wilco than in Travis County in the not-too-distant future. I know that projection might scare some Austinites, but its simple demographics and geography. Speaking as a Wilco taxpayer and a criminal law practitioner, I want good, independent forensic results from a trusted source that is locally accountable. Williamson County has been voting with its dollars recently: sending its forensic business to the labs who do the best job for the best price. But that pay-as-you-go system won't keep working forever as the county keeps growing. It's time to plant the seeds and cultivate some local talent.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Brunner, if the judge had only made that argument, I'd have no beef. But that's not all he said, is it?

Anonymous said...

So which is it? Does Williamson need its own crime lab because it's going to be bigger than Austin or to keep its "small town feel"?

Anonymous said...

Grits--Annie Dookhan is a mentally unstable person who not only committed unconscionable acts of fraud but blatantly lied about her academic credentials among other things. Those emails with prosecutors the Boston Globe printed (I think you posted an article about them on the blog at some point) reveal her behavior as clear as day. It looks like the lab she worked in was as much of a mess as she was. The lab was not accredited by any national body, a highly problematic fact that allowed her to continue on with her shenanigans for years. The Wilco lab will have to be accredited under Texas law according to ISO standards which are rigorous. Let's hope Wilco takes the path of hiring strong scientific leadership and good analysts. That is still a possible outcome, regardless of the views expressed in the op-ed.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Anything is possible. But the DPS lab Jonathan Salvador worked in was accredited. I wonder, if their management viewed the world like Wilco, would it have been handled as forthrightly as it has been? Hope springs eternal.

Anonymous said...

How about in "ANY" County forensic science!

Force Majeure said...


Shows that there are lots of slow learners out there, especially in County Government positions.

Phillip Baker said...

Forensics science is in its infancy, really. Remember how eye witness testimony went from gold standard to very shaky? Or those dogs that could sniff out the guilty? Arson junk science? Then consider that there are "expert witness" mills around the country that "certify" people with no applicable knowledge as expert witnesses. And the many judges who will allow junk science and those same fake experts to tesitfy. Putting a crime lab in the hands of of a county with a proven record of misconduct just invites disaster. Wilco needs to clean up its act before being allowed to have a forensics lab, and then only if it is completely independent.

Brunner said...

@Phillip Baker, Forensic science in its infancy? What's that sound? Oh, its the 19th century calling, they want to talk to you about fingerprints. And speaking of calling, please leave a number where the folks of Williamson County can call you (from the future, perhaps?) to see if they have cleaned up their act enough in your opinion to have earned the right to be "allowed" to have their own forensic center.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, Brunner, Phillip is basically right. You clearly need to read the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report on forensics. Forensic SCIENCE is in its infancy, only beginning to clean up their act in the wake of the DNA revolution. That includes fingerprints. Many of the fields have little if any basis in science, claiming levels of accuracy that are simply false and indefensible.

Seriously, if you are a "criminal law practitioner" (read: prosecutor) as you say, you should educate yourself. Until then, I don't need to wait til the future to judge - you and Judge Gravell are demonstrating in real time that Wilco isn't ready to handle the responsibility. That doesn't mean that you can't or won't do it, just that you're likely to screw it up and produce more cases like Michael Morton's.

Hope you prove me wrong!

Anonymous said...

The Wilco DA is also the person who gave the Georgetown Advocate the file on Jim Wolcott to do their hatchet job on, saying she'd love to prosecute him but the case is closed, but it IS a story - even though the State of TX released the man and dismissed remaining charges in 1974. And does not have a felony on his record. I hope he sues the DA and reporters for slander, ethics violations and invasion of privacy.

Amy Moore said...

If Williamson County were to have it's own crime lab I would be absolutely terrified of living here. Especially with people like Judge Bill Gravell in positions of power & authority. I was in Judge Bill Gravell's courtroom this morning on 3 old warrants in regards my dog not having rabies tags and a leash violation in 2008. I am on unemployment and a single mother of two. I I had been applying for jobs and that's how I found out about these old tickets that had become warrants. I needed to take care of these in order to pass a background check for an employer who offered me a job. I filed for indecency because I am on unemployment through the state of California and they are not consistent with payments. Judge Bill Gravell spoke to me like I was a dog and a hard core criminal. He threatened to put me in jail and asked the bailiff why I was not arrested at the check in counter. He was unaware of the indecency process and he was unaware of a few other basic procedures and policies in regards to my case. He yelled at me in a very rude tone, I do not have a criminal record and could not believe he was treating me so badly. I am going to file as many grievances and bring as much attention to this issue as I can. I do not feel people like him should be in position of power when they talk down to and try to make certain people feel like dirt. There was another case before me about a young blond haired teenager and his "good ol boy" father who had violated his probation and got the same charge for drinking and possession of marijuana. The judge made several nice remarks to the man and his boy and pretty much gave him a slap in the wrist. I just do not understand why I had to get treated like a serial baby rapist for an unlicensed loving dog who got off his leash. I fear for the safety of my children and the future of Williamson County if people like Gravell are in "power" positions.