Friday, September 26, 2008

Lab personnel rarely collect crime scene evidence directly

Another few tidbits from yesterday's meeting of the Criminal Justice Integrity Unit created by the Court of Criminal Appeals; this time let's highlight some comments from the event about Texas forensic labs:

Pat Johnson, who's the field supervisor for DPS' state-run crime labs and a member of the Integrity Unit panel, performed an informal survey of non-DPS crime labs in Texas operated by local jurisdictions. Respondents said that less than 10% of evidence collected at crime scenes was gathered by lab personnel, with most of it being collected by cops. Austin PD is the main exception, he said, with an entirely civilian Crime Scene Investigation unit.

A majority of labs, when asked how good a job they were doing, replied that some improvements were needed.

One lab said they did not believe they were receiving all available evidence that should be examined, while a majority said "we don't know."

Johnson said 2/3 of local labs provided some training to staff but relatively few people were actually receiving it. He asked about evidence storage. DPS labs return evidence to whoever sent it to them, while local labs vary, with some storing it themselves while others return it to police property rooms. On biological evidence, though, even when evidence is returned most labs have a policy of retaining a DNA sample.

Several respondents expressed concerns about storage space, which corroborates concerns expressed by John Vasquez's presentation on space shortages at police property rooms. Jim McLaughlin, a lobbyist for the police chiefs' association who's a member of the Integrity Unit, said three schools - Texas State, Texas A&M, and Sam Houston State University - were all developing training programs for crime lab personnel. He urged expanded funding for training if the state expected everyone to participate.

Another speaker, John Terzano who's the President and co-founder of the Justice Project, said that forensic errors or malpractice was the second biggest cause of false convictions in Texas behind erroneous eyewitness/vicitim IDs. He urged expanded funding and staffing for the Forensic Science Commission to allow it to be more proactive instead of just "backward looking." He also argued for "blind testing" in forensic labs so the technicians actually running the tests don't know the details of the case in order to avoid bias and pressure to be a "team player."

Terzano also mentioned that Texas recently received $500,000 in federal grant funds for DNA testing but that money had not been finally allocated yet to individual departments. This is a so-called "Bloodsworth" grant authorized under the Federal Innocence Protection Act, he said. Four other states - Washington, Arizona, Kentucky and Virginia - also received money under this federal grant program.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Even if labs do a good job of gathering and storing evidence, the fact that a single person -- with no oversight or review -- makes the decision as to the cause & manner of death can be a factor leading to wrongful conviction.

The Nueces County Medical Examiner, Dr. Fernandez, is admittedly overworked and performing more autopsies than are allowed for certification by the medical board. An article in the local paper this past summer told how he can't handle his caseload. He performed the autopsy on my grand-nephew -- while the police detective was in the room with his police report in hand -- and pronounced the manner of the child's death as a homicide when there was insufficient evidence to support that ruling.

Scientists who publish papers in medical journals are required to get peer review. But for ME's -- who have another's fate in their hands -- there is no oversight or review.

A representative of Sen Rodney Ellis' office told me that he thought he could suggest that medical examiner complaints could be taken to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, but then said that, after briefly reviewing the charter legislation, it appears that they cannot review autopsy results by medical examiners.

So -- no oversight or accountability for medical examiners.

This is eye-opening for an average citizen like myself. Those of us who know my niece is innocent all believed in the stuff they teach in high school civics -- that a system of checks and balances is in place to protect the innocent.