Wednesday, February 21, 2007

DAs are wrong: Crime labs lack 'integrity'

On the Texas DAs' user forum on their website, an East Texas prosecutor complains about a defense attorney who is:
seeking the county to begin paying for independent drug analysis for indigents. We have a massive drug problem out here. We send all samples to the state lab, but apparently that is not good enough.
How rude of defense counsel to not believe state crime lab technicians, don't you think? Naturally our protagonist found a sympathetic audience among her fellow prosecutors. Another forum member replied that:
The defendant must still show the identity of the substance is going to be a significant factor at trial. Relatively few "affluent" defendants independently analyze contraband and I am not aware of significant problems with DPS Crime Lab analysis. Thus, an independent expert is not a "basic tool" integral to the building of an effective defense.
But it appears to me the defense attorney in East Texas is probably onto something, given recent revelations about irregularities and stolen evidence at DPS crime lab testing facilities. The Houston Chronicle's Steve McVicker reported today ("DPS officials were told of lax lab security," 2-21) that:
Texas Department of Public Safety officials were aware of security breaches in the handling of their drug evidence as recently as 2006 and as far back as at least 2003 — problems such as failure to log evidence out of storage, containers of marijuana left open and the lack of a monitoring system for a high-security drug vault — according to the agency's internal audits.

The revelation about the warnings comes in the wake of last week's arrest of a technician at the state's Houston crime lab after a DPS investigation discovered he apparently had been for years selling cocaine smuggled out of the lab.

So even if prosecutors claim to be unaware of "significant problems" with DPS crime lab analysis, most Texas newspaper readers are, and they've been going on for years. Reported the Chronicle:

In 2003, internal audits also found problems with the security and integrity of evidence at DPS labs in Austin, El Paso, Waco and Lubbock, in addition to Houston.

If the "security and integrity" of lab testing is questionable at at least five DPS labs, it sounds to me like the East Texas defense attorney is right on target to insist on independent analyses. I understand counties don't want to pay for that - they don't like to pay for attorneys to represent indigent defendants, either. But that's the cost of being "tuff" on crime if you don't want to convict innocent people. If lab analyses routinely lack "integrity," I don't see any other way to solve the problem besides giving defendants access to independent testing.

See Related Grits posts:
UPDATE: Dave Maass at the SA Current writes this week about a Bexar County case where deputies appear to have falsified information in a search warrant and crme lab tests accusing the defendant were debunked when the defendant's independent experts analyzed the evidence. Check it out. The problems with this case should also give pause to legislators who appear so anxious to jack up sentences via Jessica's Law without including new innocence reforms.


Anonymous said...

Prosecutors don't care who they convict, guilty or innocent, all they want is a plea bargain and another notch in their success score.
I sure hope the newspaper readers understand that a conviction is a score of who wins and who looses, and not much of an indicator of either guilt or innocence

Mike Howard said...

I wouldn't go as far as to say all prosecutors don't care who they convict, but certainly some feel that way deep down. I think the bigger problem is that everyone in at the criminal courthouse - DAs particularly - have blinders on to everything but their case. They trust the lab, so why shouldn't you? To me it's symptomatic of a much bigger issue.

Anonymous said...

As a prosecutor, I feel the "squeeze" more than you may realize. I am sworn, not to seek convictions, but to see justice done. That means one thing to the officer, another to the victim, another to the defendant, and sometimes another to the judge. Throwing the case to a jury is an easy answer - but is that fair to the person / entity paying the bill? If counsel is court appointed, the county taxpayer is stuck; if privately retained, the defendant now has an enormous bill.

After four years of doing the best I can with the intelligence, resources, and input I'm given, I have to answer the charges of an opponent that I'm "soft on crime" and that my conviction rate is unacceptable. Try convincing voters that "justice" does not always equal "conviction". Given that Catch-22, is it any wonder many of my colleagues have become cynical? (Yes, there is a reason that this is posted by A Nony Moose!)