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Or find a transcript of the full interview below the jump.
Scott: Hello this is Scott Henson on January 12, 2016. I’m here today with Sandra Guerra Thompson with a Grits for Breakfast podcast and we’re here today to talk about her new book Cops in Lab Coats: Curbing Wrongful Convictions Through Independent Forensic Laboratories and also a new event that she’s got coming up in Houston on jails and vulnerable people. I’ve already forgotten the name?
Sandra: “Police, Jails and Vulnerable People”
Scott: There you go, so welcome Sandra. Thanks for stopping by to visit.
Sandra: Thank you Scott.
Scott: All right well let’s start with your book, which came out last year.
Sandra: Mm hm.
Scott: Congratulations, first off, I just finished it and it’s great; especially loved your bibliography. I’m going to be mining that for reading material for quite some time. But this book really centers on the Houston Crime Lab - in many way, I guess, around the George Rodriguez case, but the Houston Crime Lab is sort of its main focus and the story of how its scandals sort of led to its, its reform. Why don’t you tell us just a little about why you wrote the book, how you came to write it, and, I should mention that you’re now on the Board of the Houston Crime Lab that’s moved out of the Houston P.D. and is now a private entity.
Sandra: That’s right.
Scott: Or an independent entity. So tell us a little bit about how you came to write this book.
Sandra: Sure. So in 2012 Mayor Annise Parker asked me to join the newly formed Board of Directors for what would be called The Houston Forensics Science Center, and basically The Houston Forensics Science Center is the former HPD Crime Lab, but it is now independent of HPD, as of last year. And, a large part of what our Board of Directors was doing and is still actively involved in is removing the lab from the police department and figuring out exactly how you do that and how you structure an independent lab, and we hired a lot of new people. It’s been a really interesting project, but when I joined the Board, I realized that I didn’t know nearly enough about forensic science to do a good job. And so I decided right then and there that I was going to dedicate my academic research as a law professor to this issue, and so that’s what started me on this project.
Scott: Well good for you. So this is essentially your process of having to learn what you needed to know to exercise your fiduciary responsibility of the crime lab and make the sort of decisions on the policy issues that really are not obvious. That are not…
Sandra: Mm hm.
Scott: …something that is always intuitive.
Sandra: Correct. They’re not, and it was a wonderful Board to serve on. There were many people with a lot of expertise in different areas, but none of us really had any background in forensic science and in lab management, so it was important to have at least one person that could help guide the board when it came to some of those kinds of issues, so I was very, very blessed to have the time to be able to do that.
Scott: Excellent. So, I guess really the heart of your book is your Chapter 3, which is entitled “The Complex Critique of Forensic Science”…
Sandra: Mm hm.
Scott: …and I like that because there are some simplistic critiques of forensic science out there. But, why don’t you describe for us what the complex critique is, and I should say that [as much as] it’s a critique, it’s almost more a discussion of the moment in history that were in…
Sandra: That’s right.
Scott: …and grappling with these issues. But, why don’t you talk a little about that.
Sandra: Sure. So, so the book is really a story about the state of affairs in forensic science nationwide. I kind of personalize it, bring it home, by telling the story about the Houston Lab, but this chapter on forensic science really is the heart of the book. It tries to convey the complexity of the issues in this field because forensic science is not one thing. It is many disciplines. Many, many disciplines from DNA on one end of the spectrum to bite mark evidence on another and many things in between. And the level of reliability various tremendously, and there’s just so much there, and so what I try to do is really kind of break it down and explain in this chapter when we talk about junk science or what have you, we cannot say that forensic science is junk science. It’s not and there are only certain, certain disciplines that I would attach that label. Most of it is very good evidence.
Scott: And some things are not junk science per se, but may have junky applications that may be used in court in way that overstates what the true science is able to say. I think that’s often what happens is that it may or may not be the case that the underlying science itself is valid, but when it’s used in the courtroom, it’s portrayed as being definitive, when really it’s much more questionable…
Scott: …and not as well defined.
Sandra: Yeah, that’s right, so when police officers find physical or biological evidence at a crime scene, right, it’s like you’re going to conduct an experiment and try to determine whether that evidence can be identified, you know, matched up with a suspect or try to find a suspect through some database. And so it’s a question of if we say that there’s some kind of match, if you will, how, how sure are we of that, and do we have scientific proof to support that kind of conclusion? And, historically, you had analysts in many disciplines who would testify in court that it was a definitive match, and now what we’re understanding is that with the exception of DNA, there aren’t any other disciplines where we can say definitively that two sources are a match.
Scott: And even with DNA we’re finding that DNA mixtures – there may be more interpretation or subjective element than we previously understood.
Sandra: That’s right. That’s exactly right and so you know how we interpret DNA when there are mixtures of has become a real issue that we’re grappling with in Texas.
Scott: So you make a distinction between two problems with forensic science in the very biggest picture.
Sandra: Mm hm.
Scott: The problem with individualization versus junk science per se…
Sandra: Mm hm.
Scot: …how would you distinguish those two issues?
Sandra: Right, well you know you have some disciplines like what people would call fingerprints and experts would call latent prints. So in the fingerprint area or with regard to firearms, which we often refer to as ballistics, you have experts who are very good at what they’re doing, and, and really are identifying deep characteristics that do give them a very strong basis, in many cases for saying that there’s a match. But, but how sure are we of that match? What is the error rate? This is something that is currently not knowable. There is just no way to determine. We know that they make mistakes, but we have no way of saying how often they do or do not, and so historically, what we’ve had in court is people testifying that it is a definitive match to the exclusion of all others and now we know they really have no basis for saying that. And so you know that one of the struggles nationally is to come up the right language to express to the jury that we think this is very good evidence, but it’s, it’s not without some possibility of error, so you know, part of the challenge in this chapter is to try to explain that, you know, we shouldn’t go around saying fingerprint evidence is no good, because of course, it is. The problem is we just don’t know how good it is. Whereas, other evidence like bite mark evidence, for example, we know is junk now. Or, you know, comparative bullet lead analysis, dog sniff lineups, I mean there’s a lot of stuff that’s been used in court that we now no is just bogus evidence.
Scott: So, the main solution your book focuses on, I suppose, is making crime labs independent from law enforcement. And, this goes back I guess to your chapter discussing the paradox of the ethical but biased analyst that even analysts who are not your Annie Dookhans out of Massachusetts who are intentionally framing people. The fact that working for law enforcement…
Sandra: Mm hm.
Scott: …can somehow taint or bias their activities and creating administrative independence was one of I guess the recommendations of The National Academy of Science’s big report back in 2009. And Houston may be, to my knowledge, the biggest city in the country to have actually shifted to independence. So talk to us about why you made that recommendation and what your experience has been like with Houston moving to an independent lab.
Sandra: Sure, so yeah, in 2009 the National Academy of Sciences put out a major report on forensic science and this was one of the really critical recommendations that they make is that forensic lab need not and should not be located within the law enforcement agency. There’s not the kind of institutional competence there to manage a laboratory properly and there is some bias that we would all experience, you know, from feeling like you’re part of a law enforcement team. But the more critical thing is how a lab is structured and to what extent managers take the steps to insulate analysts from the details of an investigation so that when they’re testing something, they’re not hoping for a certain outcome, they shouldn’t really know what outcome the investigators want to see so those kinds of protocols are really important as well.
Scott: So, describe to me a little more how these structural constraints work because that does sound frankly a lot more interesting and probative than the “blame the analyst.” The analyst, everyone wants to blame them because they’re sort of at the bottom of the totem pole…
Scott: …and they’re the easiest one to say “ok you’re fired, get out,” everything’s solved.
Scott: But, these structural questions are why problems kept coming up in the Houston Crime Lab over and over, why it wasn’t a one-off so.
Sandra: Yeah, I mean, and again, even this is, it’s part of a bigger picture, which is, you know, when you have a lab that’s within a police department, the tendency is for these labs not to get the same priorities as other law enforcement departments. So, you know, when a police chief is looking at a budget, funding the lab properly is not at the top of the list.
Scott: Far below patrol for example?
Sandra: Exactly, police offers, you know, cops on the street, that’s what they want and that’s where their priorities usually lie. So when you have an independent lab, you can properly fund it, you can make sure that everyone who works in this lab has the proper credentials, and that systems are in place to make sure you’re getting the science right. And that’s the priority now at The Houston Forensics Science Center, and that message goes out all the time, in many different ways, and again, you know when you have good management, they’re going to try to have proper collection of data. They’re going to have lab reports that are more comprehensive and clear and consistent across the laboratory. And they’re going to keep track of how many tests each analyst is doing and whether these analysts are proficient or not. So it’s really about having a properly funded and well-managed lab. That’s the critical thing, and independence is a really important factor in making that happen.
Scott: Great. Well, let’s switch gears and talk about some of your recent work related to pre-trial detention. I know you’ve got an event coming up in Houston here in about a week or so, I guess a week-and-a-half, and a lot of your work has revolved around McArthur Foundation Grant that Houston’s been preparing and recently submitted. So tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing there and about your event coming up.
Sandra: Sure. So, the event is next Friday, the 22nd in Houston at The University of Houston, and the information is online at The University of Houston Law Center’s website. It’s called “Police, Jails, and Vulnerable People: New Strategies for Confronting Today’s Challenges” and it’s a national program, so we’re going to really be focusing on the four critical areas and really this symposium was inspired by the Sandra Bland case. So, breaking it down into the four components. We’re talking policing in America today, we’re talking about pre-trial detention, and the bail bond issues, as well as jail safety and diversion for people with mental health issues. So those are the four major components.
We have national speakers. We’re also, and I’m really excited about this, going to have a legislative panel, and so we have a total of five legislators who will be speaking throughout the day. Senator Whitmire at lunch and then Senator Burton and representatives Coleman, Woo, and White are all going to be on the legislative panel at the end of the day, so it’s going to be a tremendous event. Seats are really filling up quickly though, so people should register as soon as possible.
Scott: Good, well I’m glad there’s a lot of interest. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about this McArthur Foundation process…
Sandra: Mm hm.
Scott: …and this grant that Houston just submitted, or rather Harris County.
Sandra: Harris County. Yeah, it’s a really exciting thing, I mean, it’s a good news/bad news situation. So the good news, and there’s a lot of good news, that the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has been involved in applying for this grant. Harris County was one of 20 jurisdictions selected by the McArthur Foundation for the first phase of the grant, and so they got $150,000 to gather data and to put together some proposals. And the idea for the grant is how are you going to reduce your jail population without affecting public safety, right, so keeping in mind public safety. And the final grant proposal was recently submitted, January 6th, you know, was the deadline. And there are some really good proposals for new programs in that, so I’m happy about that. I mean, one of the things that the grant would do is to develop a more robust diversion programs for the mental ill, so, you know, trying to find a way, when people are really mentally ill and there are resources in the community to get them out of the jail, not to even book them into jail. So that’s going to help considerably. And there’s an emphasis as well on reducing racial disparities in the jail population, so you know, there’ll be some work done on that. There was a lot more that could be done, but it, there was only six months to put these proposals together, and for a major county, trying to get everyone to agree on major change in six months is a big challenge.
Scott: Right. And the big one that was left out that everyone’s sort of up in arms about, it seems like, is the judges not agreeing to allow defense attorneys at the bail hearing.
Sandra: Well, yes, so it’s, I mean ultimately it’s not a part of the grant proposal, which was submitted by the County and was produced the Court and the Council. But it’s still on the table, and there’s committee that was appointed by the late Commissioner [Franco] Lee, and they are going to be coming back March 1st with their proposal. So I’m still very hopeful that we will see that happen. There’s a recommendation by the public defender that they do have attorneys at the magistration for bail hearings and it’s a critical safeguard for people. I mean, how do you have a judicial hearing where people aren’t represented? You know that’s not how we do – it’s not how we should be doing things in this country, right?
Scott: Right. Well, it sounds like there’s a least some cause for optimism. I’m glad to hear that. Is there anything you wanted to chat about on this topic while I have you? On the pre-trial front, or?
Sandra: Well, the other thing I would say that I think, you know, looks like there’s going to be some work done legislatively at the next session. And, you know the symposium we’re having covers these four areas: The policing, the bail reform, jail safety, and mental health diversion. And there’s a lot of work to be done at the state level, which is why we have legislators on the panel. so you know, I hope that we’ll see other programs and efforts in the coming year to get some major reforms through.
Scott: All right, well thank you very much for stopping by.
Sandra: Thank you
Transcribed by http://idictate.com. Edited for grammar and clarity by Scott Henson.