Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Inspector: Houston PD Crime Lab Needs Special Master

The 80th Texas Legislature left town without significantly addressing the problem of forensic labs where accuracy increasingly appears to be optional, but that doesn't mean the problem has gone away. In Houston, AP reports ("Houston crime lab report cites mishandled cases, commends upgrade," June 13):
An independent investigation into the Houston Police Department's troubled crime lab released Wednesday cites hundreds of mishandled forensic cases and recommends that a special master be appointed to thoroughly review some of the cases.

The final report by former Justice Department inspector Michael Bromwich wraps up a two-year study that examined more than 3,500 forensic science cases analyzed by the lab over the past 25 years.

The DNA/serology division of the crime lab was reopened last year after being shut down in 2002, when an audit raised red flags about the reliability of the division's work.

While the 400-page report commends the city's efforts to rebuild the crime lab over the past two years, it also highlights "major issues" identified in both DNA and blood-analysis cases handled by the lab between from the 1980s to 2002.

"The Crime Lab's substandard, unreliable serology and DNA work is all the more alarming in light of the fact that it is typically performed in the most serious cases, such as homicides and sexual assaults," the report said.

The investigation's review of 135 sample DNA cases analyzed by the crime lab from 1992 to 2002 identified "major issues" in 43 of them. The review covered all 18 death penalty cases that involved DNA analysis in the time period. It identified major issues in the cases of four death-row inmates.

The report recommends that Houston and Harris County authorities appoint a special master to review 180 blood-analysis cases from the 1980s and early 1990s related to currently incarcerated convicts.

Investigators found problems in the blood-evidence analysis in the cases that created a "major issue with the reliability of the Crime Lab's work or the accuracy of its reported results."

Problems in the crime lab's DNA/serology section resulted partly from underfunding as its workload grew, according to the report. The lab's workers were poorly trained, morale was low and oversight was inadequate, the report said.

Accreditation alone won't solve these problems. The reason forensic science isn't always accurate is that it's not neutral science but a goal-oriented inquiry, as I've written before:
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 better solutions haven't been repeatedly proposed, but officials appear more concerned with pork than probity when it comes to forensic science.

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