Monday, December 27, 2004

Options for Fixing Texas Crime Labs

CrimProf blog points to the Texas House Research Organization report (pdf) issued December 20 analyzing the question, "Should Texas Do More To Regulate Crime Labs?"

While the Houston crime lab's egregious past has become fairly common knowledge, this report recounts how the DPS crime lab in McAllen had to be secretly shut down to fix problems found in an audit earlier this year, and the DNA lab operated by Fort Worth PD was ultimately closed.

The report didn't mention Brandon Moon, who an El Paso district judge recently released after he was falsely convicted based on bad analysis from the DPS crime lab in Lubbock. But it did cite Frances Newton's case; she was given a 120 day reprieve from her death sentence recently to allow retesting of gunpowder residue first examined by the Houston crime lab.

It's got to be clear, now, though, that crime lab problems aren't just Houston problems; there's a crisis in forensic science in Texas, a deep and profound one. (So profound that the report even includes an evaluation of the pros and cons of a death penalty moratorium based on crime lab problems.)

HRO examined several options, some of them gleaned from interim committee reports. Most prominently, they examined the idea of creating a regional system of forensic labs, possibly with a pay as you go system where local government pays for services to finance it. The report says DPS' crime labs, though, which are essentially already regional crime labs, haven't done a good job, so there's no reason to believe that reform will fix the problem.

The other options listed look more promising. Chief among them: the state should spend more money for defendants, many of whom are indigent, to pay for lab work and scientific investigations to refute shoddy state crime lab work. In other words, let the adversarial system flesh out the truth. What a novel concept. Of all the proposals cited by HRO, that's the one most likely to force the system to right itself.

Another proposal: expanding defendants' discovery access to information about crime lab tests, allowing defendants to obtain labs' error rates through discovery and making the information admissible during trial. That might almost finish some of these labs.

Finally HRO noted that crime scene investigators and crime lab workers don't have any particular, special training, and suggested some sort of formal accreditation process for those often civilian workers. Yeah, I'd say it's time to make sure those folks have some minimum training.

All of this could be readily fixed with the proper resources. The money is even available.

If he wanted to, Governor Perry could spend federal Byrne grant money to fix DPS and local crime labs, diverting the funds from Texas' flawed drug task force network. Byrne grant applications statewide are due in January, so he's got plenty of time to decide to shift the resources if that's what he wanted to do. Since the Legislature may get rid of the task forces, anyway, that might be a wise move.

1 comment:

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