To Regain Public Confidence Houston Police and Crime Labs Must Adhere to the Highest Standards of Competence, Independence and Integrity
By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
Houston’s Mayor Annise Parker announced recently that she will replace the city’s outgoing police chief, Harold Hurtt, with someone from within the command rank of the Houston Police Department (HPD). We do not view this as a compelling promise of change. The HPD under Hurtt’s leadership was rocked by one “evidence gathering” scandal after another. It would be foolish to assume all these scandals were attributable to Hurtt’s management style alone. The scandals actually revealed a systemic problem within the HPD from its top command echelon down to the rank and file patrol officers. Thus, tapping someone within this problematic agency does not invite encouragement that integrity and professionalism in the department will improve immediately after Hurtt’s welcomed departure.
The latest HPD scandal, examiners not properly analyzing fingerprint evidence or failing to examine the evidence at all, will cost taxpayers nearly $3 million to fix. This will require a team of outside consultants, who are already running the fingerprint unit’s day-to-day operations, to re-examine some 5,000 of what the Houston Chronicle called “violent crime cases as well as sift through a backlog of thousands more violent and property crime cases that have been waiting to be reviewed.”
As a result of this fingerprint scandal, one part-time employee was forced to resign under pressure and three others were placed on administrative leave. To make matters worse, the HPD recently submitted a report to the City Council informing its members that it will probably cost taxpayers an additional $2 million to hire new examiners to run the department’s fingerprint unit.
To be fair, the HPD is not the only law enforcement agency to experience a “fingerprint analysis” problem. The Houston Chronicle recently reported that the Los Angeles Police Department earlier this year acknowledged its fingerprint unit was a “sloppy operation” in which files were “left lying around, prints sometimes lost and at least two people had been wrongly identified as criminal suspects because of botched fingerprint analysis.” It was a similar story in 2007 involving Florida’s Seminole County Sheriff’s Department, prompting the sheriff to discipline numerous employees after it was discovered that, as the Chronicle reported, “analysts [were] cutting corners and pegging fingerprints to the wrong suspects.”
Virtually every discipline of forensic evidence—fingerprints, ballistics, serology, blood spattering, hair microscopy, bite marks, dog scents, shoe print comparisons, etc.—are in a state of national scientific disrepute. That’s because nearly every forensic discipline lacks scientific validation. These disciplines have simply acquired scientific credibility over the years because trial courts routinely concluded that educational credentials and prior courtroom testimony was sufficient to give these “junk science” proponents an “expert” status. The result has been one travesty of justice after another.
For example, with regard to fingerprint analysis, UCLA law professor Jennifer Mnookin told the Chronicle: “There hasn’t been adequate research or validation. So there’s no quantitative standard for deciding how much information is necessary in order to do a comparison.”
This permits law enforcement agencies to use different methodologies in their fingerprint analysis. And that seems to be okay with Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, who subscribes to the popular notion that since fingerprint analysis is not complex, there is no need for accredited standardized testing. The Chronicle reported there are only ten fingerprint labs in Texas which have been certified under the strict standards of ASCLD-LAB, “considered the gold standard in accrediting fingerprint units.” It is ironic that the recent HPD fingerprint scandal was discovered after the department sought to get its fingerprint unit certified under ASCLD-LAB.
Although popularized by such programs as CSI, and all of its spin-off progeny, forensic evidence has become the leading cause for wrongful convictions in this country. The Innocence Project of New York reports that 50% of all DNA exonerations nationwide involved “invalidated or improper forensic science.” The most recent example was Donald Eugene Gates who spent 28 years in the federal prison system after being wrongfully convicted of rape and murder based on the testimony of a now discredited FBI forensic evidence “expert.”
The Innocence Project has also pointed out that some of these wrongful convictions involve more than “discredited” forensic testimony. They involve “forensic misconduct” where lab analyst fabricate tests results and offer misleading testimony to satisfy what has historically been the overriding prosecutorial philosophy of many district attorney’s offices, including Harris County: “convict at any costs.” This was the case with former HPD crime lab analyst Joseph Chu who resigned from the crime lab’s serology department after investigations revealed he had manipulated test results to help the district attorney’s office secure convictions.
In 2005 the HPD’s “ballistics division” was rocked by a scandal similar to those experienced by its “fingerprint unit” and its crime lab’s serology department. After state and federal court hearings, it was revealed that faulty ballistics analysis contributed to the capital murder convictions of three Texas death row inmates. At the time Texas Defender Service attorney Morris Moon told the Chronicle: “I’m astonished that the ballistics lab hasn’t already drawn more attention. It should be like the DNA lab. They should go back and re-evaluate all the cases and make sure there haven’t been other mistakes.”
The Innocence Project of New York has advocated the creation of a national forensic science agency much like the Food and Drug Administration. The Innocence Project recommends that such a federal agency be charged with three primary responsibilities in the forensic science field: research; assessment and reliability; and quality assurance, accreditation and certification of laboratories and practitioners. The project described each responsibility as follows:
- Research: A national forensic science agency would identify research needs, establish priorities, and design criteria for reviewing forensic disciplines. Funding should also exist for expanded basis and applied research in order to test the validity of extant forensic methods, devices, and assays, and help develop new technologies to solve crime.
- Assessment of Validity and Reliability: This agency would also be responsible for reviewing both existing and new research data to determine whether a technique, device or assay is scientifically valid and reliable for use in casework, and what the parameters of the assay should include. Furthermore, the agency should ensure the discontinuation of any invalid or unreliable methods, and support others only to the extent their practitioners present and interpret data within scientifically acceptable parameters.
- Quality Assurance, Accreditation and Certification: A national forensic science agency would set and oversee enforcement of standards for public and private laboratories, as well as for individuals conducting forensic tests and examinations with intended use in U.S. federal and state courts. Quality controls and quality assurance programs must secure the integrity of the ultimate forensic product in the laboratory and in the courthouse. Forensic oversight should be obligatory, and non-compliance with accreditation and certification should allow for a loss of accreditation or individual certification and a cessation of business
- We wholeheartedly endorse the Innocence Project’s efforts to bring about these badly need reforms in the field of forensic science. There have been enough national and state scandals to gag the proverbial maggot. Shoddy work, sloppy practices, lack of supervision, fabrication and manipulation of evidence, and a general indifference to not only scientific integrity but a flagrant disregard for the truth seeking process so essential to our adversarial system of justice have become the hallmark of law enforcement crime labs nationwide. For example, the New York Times reported recently that “the New York State Police’s supervision of a major crime laboratory was so poor that it overlooked evidence of pervasively shoddy forensics work, allowing an analyst to go undetected for 15 years as he falsified test results and compromised nearly one-third of his cases, an investigation by the state’s inspector general has found.”
New York Innocence Project Director Barry Scheck told the Times: “It is a wake-up call to the forensic community. What’s alarming about this report and others that we’ve seen like it is that it’s not so much the bad actors, it’s that the fact that the system didn’t detect them earlier.”
Earlier this year the Texas Department of Public Safety announced that one of its contract employees had failed to inspect breath analysis equipment and faked records to show she had, bringing into question some 2600 Houston-area DWI arrests. What does it say about the quality of supervision when one rogue employee can cast doubt on nearly 2500 criminal convictions?
New York’s Inspector General Joseph Fisch concluded in his report about that state’s latest forensic scandal: “Cutting corners in a crime lab is serious and intolerable. Forensic laboratories must adhere to the highest standards of competence, independence and integrity. Anything less undermines public confidence in our criminal justice system.”
We have reached this point with the HPD’s collection, processing and analyzing any forensic evidence. We firmly believe the department lacks the “competence, independence and integrity” to correct its history of fabricating, manipulating, or failure to test forensic evidence. Perhaps Mayor-elect Parker can reach into the department and pull out a shining gold star, but if past experience is any guide, the mayor will only produce another bronze dud. We hope we’re wrong. We hope HPD has both the courage and integrity to reform itself, but we will not hold our breath on it.
By: Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair