Thursday, July 10, 2008

Crime lab workers suffer from "team spirit" mentality

It's one thing to change procedures in an institution, but quite another to change its culture, which is a challenge still facing the troubled Houston crime lab and other government-run forensic labs in Texas.

The publication Government Technology has an extensive feature focusing on the Houston lab as an example of virtually everything that can go wrong with forensic analysis, declaring that "Some problems with the HPD Crime Lab - such as underfunding, poor staff training and close ties to police and prosecutors - also may be inherent in crime labs across the country."

While many mistakes at the Houston crime lab resulted from sloppiness and understaffing, but nearly all errors tended to favor the prosecution over the defense:
In late 2002, television station KHOU in Houston looked into deficiencies of the HPD Crime Lab and asked William Thompson, University of California, Irvine professor and forensic expert, to investigate.

"The problems were just obvious," Thompson said. "They weren't running proper scientific controls. They were giving misleading testimony. They were computing their statistics incorrectly - in a way that was biased against the accused in many cases."

In some cases, Thompson found simple errors where documentation said Sample A matched Sample B, for instance, which was untrue. There were cases where Thompson found inconsistencies between the lab report and what was said in court. ...

Though most of the errors can be attributed to sloppiness, incompetence and lack of training, Thompson found that the lab ordinarily erred on the prosecution's side.

Thompson also said a lack of independence and "team spirit" favoring the prosecution contribute to misleading testimony and reliance on flawed forensics:
Crime analysts are given evidence from a crime and usually told to look for something in particular. When the evidence or lab test results are unclear, the analysts might have incentive to find results favoring the police's case. "I think forensic labs get a little bit caught up in the heat of the battle from our adversarial process," Thompson said.

"It's like team spirit. They see the defense counsel as their enemy and tend to be kind of secretive and not want to disclose things outside of the family."

The problem of a "team spirit" attitude is that when the wrong person is accused - like the Josiah Sutton case featured in the story - scientists may find themselves bending their results to benefit the wrong "team," or at least the team opposed to justice in that particular instance. Forensic labs should be more like referees than team players - neutral arbiters on which both sides can rely - but that's not how things operate in the real world.

This "team spirit" atmosphere doesn't just infect the Houston crime lab but is part of the overall culture in these institutions, or at least the ones directly associated with law enforcement. I'd not heard this anecdote, for example, which shows Texas state crime labs may face the same pressures as at HPD:
In January 2008, the HPD lab's DNA supervisor, Vanessa Nelson, resigned after an internal investigation concluded she had helped crime lab analysts pass DNA skills tests by improperly giving them test answers. Within weeks she was hired by the state crime lab as DNA chief, prompting State Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, to call the hiring "shocking."

Thompson said it was that inherent team culture that prompted Nelson to cheat. "The same kind of pressures that existed before existed again," he said. "Why would this brand-new head of the DNA unit cover up a cheating problem on proficiency tests? Because she's under the same pressure they were under before."

This notion that scientists are on one or another "side" of a criminal case leads to a situation where the basic tenets of science - particularly open mindedness and objectivity - become distorted in the service of an agenda. The adversarial system is designed to vet evidence, but indigent defendants cannot pay for private labs and don't have authority without a judge's approval to request specific tests from the state run laboratories.

Several people in the article called for making crime labs "independent," but they won't be truly independent unless defense counsel can request tests just like the prosecutors and the testers no longer believe they're on the prosecution's "team."


Anonymous said...

"This notion that scientists are on one or another "side" of a criminal case leads to a situation where the basic tenets of science - particularly open mindedness and objectivity - become distorted in the service of an agenda. The adversarial system is designed to vet evidence, but indigent defendants cannot pay for private labs and don't have authority without a judge's approval to request specific tests from the state run laboratories."

I guess I am called a "conservative". Also, I am a Christian, but cannot find a church and do not think GWB and his "Christian right" supporters are Christians. I used to believe in capital punishment, but it is this very subject of crime labs manufacturing evidence that makes me no longer advocate capital punishment. The poor and downtrodden of our society have been treated grossly unjustly for many years and in many ways. We do not have justice for crime suspects in Texas. We have the a Just-Us system.

One would think crime lab operations would be "scientific" and objective and operate with good solid internal control procedures. Of course, not so, and not so for probably decades.
(Google Dr. Frederiok Whitehurst, former head of the national FBI crime lab.)

There are two sides to all of this DNA and urine and blood testing. It can be splendid solid evidence if tests are conducted honestly. (Sloppiness falls under the term "honestly" and unfortunately the word "sloppy" (or incompetence) is used to HIDE dishonesty/corruption. An honest lab manager has controls in place that quickly identify incompetent employees and there are plenty of people needing jobs these days. Lack of money for the program is no excuse. If you really want to run things right, you can. All tt takes is character and personal discipline, but these days a manager/employee with those attributes is kicked out faster than a New York minute.

But the other side of this biometric identification system is ugly and Orwellian. You can get screwed by it and murdered or put in prison for this system's proper as well as sloppy functioning. Individuals lose their Creator endowed unalienable rights under this brave new world technology.

Anonymous said...

@Above Anon:

You draw a conclusion that the lab itself is being run by the scientific community. I believe your process is incorrect however. The Lab is run(oversight) by law enforcement, who are under more and more pressure to make that arrest no matter what. Antoher error in deciding that it should be fair, is that it is also paid for by the state, and we know who runs the state.. The whole idea that a government controlled and funded crime lab could possibly be fair or atleast neutral in this day and age is impossible, as it is that crime lab that allows for the next generation of legislation to be enacted to further strip the Bill of Rights from the People of the United States.

Anonymous said...

I realize the lab is not being run by the scientific community.

I just conclude that medical technology work is an objective scientific type endeavor. The rules of that occupation are generally speaking "the scientific method."

Running the lab in an effective and accurate way involves the same kind of good business practice that applies to the operation of many kinds of businesses as well as to local government operations and all governmental entities. Close monitoring and testing for accuracy. Watching employees behavior. Getting rid of employees who do not do their jobs correctly. Caring about honesty and quality.

Anonymous said...

This article poses so many real problems that are connected to the exoneration of suspects with DNA "evidence". At the core of it all is an issue that is going to have to be addressed before even any of these noticable issues are addressed if we are going to make an effective change within the prosecutorial process in any state which is: the hiring process and the processes and means of evaluating the integrity and professionalism of those we place in these positions that require individuals who can work under such atmospheres without getting involved personally or politically and are able to withstand the pressures of what it takes to be a noble and humble public servant. Anymore, I can only ever ask the question..."Do such people even exist?"