Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Quality control essential for crime labs, boring for news reporters

The Houston Forensic Science Center, formerly the Houston PD crime lab, recently changed  procedures in light of an inspector general investigation which found insufficient attention to and reporting of evidence contamination errors in the lab, reported the Houston Chronicle (March 25):
Houston's crime lab requested the inquiry last month after an anonymous complaint was filed with the Texas Forensic Science Commission regarding the repeated misuse of new lab equipment, leading to tainted blood specimens.

OIG inspectors said lab staff took too long to report the initial error, which occurred last May, but did not find malfeasance.

"OIG sustains the concern that none of the individuals in the operational chain of command on notice of the error notified the quality director of the May 2015 error, resulting in an improper reporting delay from May to November," Inspector General Robin Curtis wrote. "Because of the totality of the circumstances including the large amount of contemporaneous discussion about the May 2015 error within the operational chain, OIG does not find any malfeasance in the error."

In addition to suggesting policy revisions, the OIG urged the Houston Forensic Science Center to address error review in regularly scheduled staff meetings, retrain staff, ensure contractors understand their quality control responsibilities and self-disclose errors to the state's forensic science commission.

The city's crime lab said in a press release Friday that it began an internal review last October and has since updated its procedures. It also noted that the end result was not affected in any of the three incidents, as analysts were able to test a second, uncontaminated vial of blood.
Routine review of errors and their causes, then developing mechanisms to prevent them - basically quality control/assurance - is a pivotal but un-sexy aspect to forensic-science reform. When they do their jobs well, QA staff are unsung reform heroes. Every forensic lab will eventually make an error. The big questions arise regarding how forthrightly they respond and whether systems are in place to learn from errors and improve processes as a result. This is boring but essential work. Effective QA requires a certain culture of humility among both lab workers and management, who must acknowledge and learn from errors when becoming defensive may be the more natural reaction. When done correctly, the outside world will never notice. Where effective QA doesn't happen, errors repeat and lab directors find their failings making it into the daily newspaper headlines, which in my observation is the last place most of them want to be.


Anonymous said...

Non-subscribers go here

Anonymous said...

So, May to November 2015, three different and independent contamination events known about, but nothing done.
The first time is a mistake. The second time is negligence. The third time is just plain stupidity.
Management waits to implement protocol change, but only after OIG recommends it in March 2016 (10 months later).


Since when does the OIG get involved in forensic matters? Where is the accreditation agency? Where is DPS? There should have been at least one regularly scheduled on-site audit within that time frame. No findings of contamination? No reporting of contamination by either of these agencies?

Hey, OIG, the failure of Management to rectify the contamination events after the first event IS malfeasance. If the crime lab had reported it a a year from today, is it still NOT malfeasance? How much time must pass before it BECOMES malfeasance?

Anonymous said...

Why was there not a self-disclosure to the TFSC earlier than last month? Why was the complaint anonymous? Which unlucky bench analyst performing their legal and ethical duty by reporting the events to the TFSC will find themselves unemployed next month due to a retaliatory manager?

And how does the crime lab management know which evidence had blood on it from the crime scene and which evidence was tainted with blood inside the crime lab? Was DNA testing done to ascertain an identification for the contamination events? Did it ever occur to Peter Stout that this information might be favorable to Defense Attorneys when consulting with their clients for trial? Should my client plea bargain because of a true positive, or is there a greater than usual possibility of a false positive? Of course this information is important, which is why the information wasn't reported in a timely fashion (long after any plea bargain or trial).

Anonymous said...

This is reminiscent of the cover-up in Dallas County where blood contamination was rampant, uncontrolled, from an unknown random source and not reported to anyone...except the TFSC and the TxDPS who didn't acknowledge it because the complaint was submitted anonymously and not by lab management.
[Note the fraudulent and illegal backdating. Apparently modification of a government documents is not a problem in Dallas County, though.]

Don't worry, those bench analysts in Dallas were fired. So Defense Attorneys won't have to hear about the scientific problems associated with the evidence being used against their clients.

Anonymous said...