Friday, February 10, 2006

CJAC: Pork Not Probity for Texas Crime Labs

Yesterday I said that Governor Rick Perry's Criminal Justice Advisory Council (CJAC) "suggested only pork barrel solutions to the state's problems." (See their press release here and the full report here [Word doc]). Their proposals to increase funding for Texas crime labs provide a good example of throwing money at a problem without solving it. CJAC's Forensics Committee recommended:
  • A $10,000 pay increase for 170 scientists "to ensure job stability")
  • New replacement crime lab facilities in McAllen, Corpus Christi and Abilene
  • Expanded crime lab facilities in El Paso, Lubbock, Tyler and Austin
  • An additional $1.4 - $2 million per year for equipment, operating funds and DNA kits and supplies.
  • Additional forensic scientists (22 in '08, 14 in '09) to staff the new labs.
So this bunch would add nearly $11 million per biennium to the Texas Department of Public Safety's budget for crime labs by 2009, plus fork over many millions more to build or expand seven different labs around the state -- all that and the "solution" ignores the cause of the problem they're aiming to fix: innocent people convicted by faulty forensic science.

Why throw that much more money at Texas DPS? They're the ones (along with the Houston PD crime lab) whose errant analyses already convicted innocent people or allowed the guilty to escape justice. So why reward them with a bigger budget and more responsibility? The DPS crime lab in McAllen had to be closed down because of grave problems with their DNA testing division, and the one in Lubbock gave faulty evidence that sent Brandon Moon, who was innocent, to prison for 18 years for a rape he didn't commit. There's just no reason to believe giving those same scientists $10,000 raises is going to solve the problem.

DPS crime labs face a significant backlog of cases that's slowing the system down, so there's no doubt more money is needed to process cases faster. But that won't solve the problem of scientists signing off on faulty forensic analysis that convicts innocent people. In fact, none of these budget boosting recommendations confront the reasons why that occurs.

As I've argued before, the real problem causing Texas' forensic foulups stems from the state's failure to pay for defense experts to perform independent analysis on behalf of indigent clients. So when DPS impugns a suspect, even when they've accused an innocent person, there's just no means for indigent defendants to refute the faulty results. Too often, as I wrote last year, accuracy is optional in forensic science because:
Forensic science isn't "objective" science, it's goal oriented. Police scientists tend to find the answers prosecutors want because, as a Dallas scientist testified to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in Houston, it's prosecutors who tell the scientists what avenues of inquiry are "probative" -- in other words, prosecutors tell the scientists what questions to ask, not defense attorneys. If defense counsel want to ask their own scientific questions - for example, to perform tests that might exclude the defendant as a suspect - the defendant must pay for outside lab testing, or convince a reluctant judge to release the funds.

Forensic science is contextual, not neutral, and outside the classroom it's always employed with a purpose. In court, innocent people get roped in by bad science largely because the purpose of the science is to convict, not to exonerate.
It's not as though authorities aren't fully aware that's the problem. Two years ago the House Research Organization issued a report (pdf) that offered more substantive proposals that might actually help innocent clients falsely accused by DPS forensic scientists. I described some of their recommendations in this Grits post:
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.
None of those suggestons made it into CJAC's recommendations - in fact, rather than paying to train crime lab workers, CJAC proposed no new training and fat raises.

Is there any wonder why these problems haven't been solved yet?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

DPS caused several competent crime labs over the state to close due to their certification process. The Texas DPS narcotic service is now, and has been for at least the last 35 years a laughing stock to law enforcement. Everything that they have encountered in the narcotic field has simply been a joke. They have never been nor will they ever be any benchmark for narcotic enforcement. Their top level of supervision is completely incompetent and their lab service has fallen right in with the same consistant failure.