Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Forensic Science Commission grudgingly releases complaint info on crime labs

After months spent fighting over whether the Texas Forensic Science Commission would release the documents, the Fort Worth Star Telegram this week reports on results from an open records request filed in October regarding complaints against Texas crime labs. Here's how the story by Yamil Berard opens:

Allegations of critical lapses at Texas crime labs, including one of the state’s most vaunted facilities, were among a dozen complaints reported to the Texas Forensic Science Commission and made public this week by the fledgling state agency that investigates misconduct by the forensic science community.

An ex-employee at the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences complained about tainted rape kits, blood stock and DNA analysis at the Dallas crime lab.

"This allegation represents what is valuable about the commission’s work to the people of Texas," said Stephen Saloom, policy director of the Innocence Project in New York.

But officials with the institute say that the allegations are false and that the whistle-blower was fired for poor performance. The ex-employee has sued the county for wrongful termination. At one point, county officials said, the whistle-blower offered to retract his complaint and settle the case for $250,000.

"He could not pass the training program for a forensic scientist," said David Alex, administrative chief in the Dallas County district attorney’s office. "The allegations he was lodging were unfounded primarily because he was not even qualified to make those allegations."

The complaints released this week were filed with the commission over a two-year period.

Copies were released after the Texas attorney general’s office said they had to be made public in response to a Public Information Act request from the Star-Telegram.

Most surprising to the North Texas criminal justice community was criticism of the institute and its chief of physical evidence, Tim Sliter, who was a panelist at legislative hearings that drew attention to debacles at the Houston Crime Lab in 2005.

"SWIFS has a good reputation," said Gary Udashen, a criminal defense attorney in Dallas. "If it’s true, there are all kinds of problems. I guess everybody just thought SWIFS was a cut above your average lab."

I'm glad MSM reporters are digging deeper into the Forensic Science Commission and problems at state crime labs. Unfortunately, the FSC as presently constituted is ill-equipped to investigate such complaints, much less rectify the problems they find.

At a meeting earlier this week of the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, Keith Hampton of the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (and Democratic candidate for the Court of Criminal Appeals) suggested that crime labs be required to regularly perform quality-assurance testing and publish error rates for each discipline at each individual crime lab. While some legislators thought it might be prejudicial if error rates were admitted in court, everyone on the committee agreed they should be calculated and made public, and there was general agreement that some judges would be inclined to admit such data into evidence, under current law, while others may not.

The Forensic Science Commission is the only oversight agency we have for Texas crime labs, but it's weak and ineffectual as a regulatory body and from all outward appearances its board has become politicized. On that score, Hampton made another suggestion I agreed with: That the FSC board including the chairmanship should be controlled by scientists, not attorneys. Presently seven of the nine members are scientists, but either a criminal defense attorney or now a prosecutor have chaired the commission since its inception.

RELATED: The next meeting of the Forensic Science Commission will be held Jan. 29 at the Courtyard Marriott, 1725 W. Fillmore Ave., Harlingen, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m..


Anonymous said...

OK, so if I call Grits a liar, then we can all start from the assumption that he is, in fact, a liar, until someone investigates and finds out he is merely incompetent?

My point is that a mere complaint is not a worthy way to write an article and claim there is something wrong. The Innocence Project of New York, however, could care less about the merits. They just want the pub. So does Grits.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, somebody's going to do that no matter what I say, 10:33, since nobody can hold accountable every two-bit coward who takes anonymous cheap shots on blog comments.

But your point is well-taken. I was simply pointing out the Startlegram's coverage and relating it to what was said at the committee hearing this week. I actually thought the notion of publishing lab-by-lab error rates was a pretty good idea, but you're right that unverified complaint data has more limited probative value.

That said, FWIW, this was the Fort Worth Star-Telegram seeking the documents and writing a story after fighting to get the material for months. That has nothing to do with me or the Innocence Project of New York, they just called Steve Saloom for a quote. One imagines the reporter took just a snippet of what Saloom had to say for the story - he's a pretty smart guy and I'll grant you that stand-alone quote out of context sounded obtuse. I'm guessing that's not all he had to say on the subject.

Also, in exactly the sense you describe, publishing allegations against crime labs is quite similar to what happens every day with criminal defendants, against whom arrest data and allegations are made public and sometimes hyped in the media before the justice system has decided guilt or innocence. I have problems with that approach, too, but if that's how the game is played, then what's good for the goose is good for gander.

Anonymous said...

You didn't just point out the coverage. You editorialized. You added words like "grudgingly" and "fighting". Where is your evidence of those subjective states of mind? You imposed them because of your inherent prejudice.

I read the articles you linked. Merely making an open records request and receiving the documents in the normal course (after submission to AG for an opinion) is exactly what happens thousands of times a year in numerous governmental agencies. What is so nefarious about that?

As for allegations against criminals being public, those allegations are contained in a sworn affidavit and reviewed by a judge for probable cause before being filed and released to the public. From what I can tell, anyone can write anything on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope to the Commission. That's hardly a screening process worthy of trust.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yes, 11:34, I editorialized. Every blog I write here expresses an opinion, as does, I notice, every comment you make.

In this case, re "grudging," etc., I was taking my lead from the Startlegram editorial writers who expressed concern that the new chairman ordered emails to be deleted and delayed giving up public records after the AG told them they must be made available. They're the ones seeking the records and if it's their perception the FSC is stalling, given recent events I don't especially blame them. The reason the comment section exists is so you can express an alternative view if you please. But I wish you'd try to do so without immediately resorting to insults.

Scott in South Austin said...

Sounds like "anonymous" is a forensics lab technician who is a tad testy over this article.

Anonymous said...

They're meeting in Harlingen? Could they make it more obvious that they don't want people to attend?

Anonymous said...

Scott, at first I thought Acerbic was hiding behind the keyboard again until I saw big words like, "You editorialized". That and the lack of the word racist clued me in.

Could you imagine what would have happened to his/her ego if you had ignored the strange comment?

BTW, the rest of us got the point. Thank you. *Just in case it is Acerbic with a thesaurus/dictionary, I'll go Anon. also.