Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Chief Harold Hurtt: Move along, nothing to see now at Houston crime lab

Houston police chief Harold Hurtt had an editorial in the Houston Chronicle recently declaring it a new day a the Houston Crime Lab, that by achieving accreditation the organization had professionalized to the point where it should be cut slack for past abuses. "HPD now has an entirely different crime lab," he pronounced. Only time will tell.

But even if the crime lab meets all current standards, there's increasing evidence that current standards often aren't good enough to pass scientific muster.

I didn't write much about the National Academy of Science's book-length report on forensics when it came out this spring because the legislative session was full upon us, but that document deserves more focus than I've given it, though it's received wide attention in other quarters, notably as last month's featured Popular Mechanics cover story.

Regular readers know about much-reported problems with arson science, with dog scent lineups, with faulty urinalysis, with fraud by technicians, so-called "shaken baby syndrome" diagnoses, and even potentially fallible fingerprints, The NAS report would add to the questionable list all the subjective comparative disciplines, including matching ballistics, tool marks, shoe and tire tracks, and handwriting. NAS also said what goes on at the medical examiners office needs to be professionalized and best practices enforced, a problem the Academy first identified as far back as 1928.

The NAS lamented that little money is spent on either primary or applied research in forensic fields and thus many commonly used tactics in crime labs are essentially unscientific and untested. For me to be comfortable the Houston Crime Lab needs no more special oversight, I'd need to hear the chief explain how the department plans to reevaluate its practices and stay current with modern science going forward. This op ed was silent on that question.

Perhaps most importantly, the NAS urged that labs be made independent of law enforcement, but they've not gone that route in Houston, where the crime lab remains under Chief Hurtt's jurisdiction. The biggest problem at the Houston crime lab historically wasn't a lack of training but the fact that they considered themselves on the prosecution's team and concealed findings that might benefit the defense.

Have the problems at the Houston crime lab been fixed? I hope so. But it will take more to convince me than an op ed from a man who probably shouldn't be in charge of the crime lab, anyway.


Anonymous said...

What about the people awaiting trial or who were co-erced into taking a plea before the crime lab got accreditation. I'l bet not all of those crimes have passed through. What about those who are incarcerated on shoddy evidence with these horrendously TX sized sentences?

NoMoreNoloContendere said...

Hey Scott,
Regarding the crime lab, Did Houston have one in 1984?

I'm researching on behalf of PROJECT: Not Guilty, in hopes of finding out where a firearm would go back then, if one was listed as a State's Exhibit?

"Chain of Custody" records do not exsist for the Mystery Gun, except for one entry by a Court Reporter that ("checked it out") And a certified letter from an Exhibit clerk claiming to have personally destroyed it in 95. No records of it happening exsist either. Thanks a million.

*ATF, FBI, HCS, HPD, HC, State Archives in Austin, etc... are clueless.