Independent DNA Lab Necessary to Successfully Prosecute Dangerous Criminals and Prevent Wrongful Convictions
By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
Last month we posted a blog about the ever increasing need for an independent crime lab in Harris County. The Houston Chronicle reported recently about Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ call for an “emergency DNA lab.” The newspaper reported that the Houston Police Department’s (HPD) DNA lab, which has been plagued with mismanagement and scandals over the past several years, has 4,076 rape kits dating back to 1996 which have not been DNA tested and another 969 criminal cases scheduled for DNA testing.
The DNA lab problem is acute, and despite the millions county taxpayers have paid to correct the HPD’s crime lab deficiencies, the clouds of despair still loom on the horizon. DA Lykos told the Chronicle that the DNA backlog grows by 75 cases each month. She urged city-county officials to honor its commitment to an “emergency” DNA lab which would not only deal with the backlog of cases but process the ones coming in each month as well. She said vacant labs at the Texas Medical Center could be retrofitted into a “temporary lab” at a cost of $1.3 million until a regional crime lab could be constructed.
But this leads to yet another problem—the more serious one, the “political problem.” The Chronicle reported that Houston Mayor Annise Parker and the HPD are “cautious about a forensic partnership.” Parker pointed out that Lykos’ proposed project was not included in HPD’s $666 million dollar budget approved earlier this year. While the mayor said she is committed to removing as many “forensic applications” as possible from the control of the HPD, a goal that we laud as extremely significant and encouraging, she added this cautionary note: “This is not a good economy to be launching new initiatives that cost more money. On the other hand, we really can’t put a price on justice, and these kinds of cleanup operations have proved to be extremely expensive to the city of Houston.”
As the city former comptroller, the mayor is budget conscious as she should be, but DA Lykos’ determination to move the wheels of justice forward is clearly putting political pressure on Parker’s cautious approach. Pointing out that earlier this year she secured a commitment from the Harris County Commissioners Court to develop a plan to establish a “temporary DNA lab” by mid-September, the District Attorney told the Chronicle: “I cannot overstate the vital importance and necessity of the court to authorize the budget office to proceed immediately [with funding for the temporary lab]. The scientific tools exist to identify, apprehend and successfully prosecute dangerous criminals and prevent wrongful convictions. And we don’t have them.”
The recent arrest of the “Grim Sleeper” serial killer in Los Angeles fuels support for Lykos’ demand for an emergency DNA lab. 57-year-old Lonnie Franklin, Jr., through seemingly irrefutable DNA evidence, has been linked to at least 10 murders, one count of attempted murder, and is suspected in as many as 30 more killings in the 81st Street area near downtown Los Angeles over the past 25 years. The retired 77th Street police station mechanic, Franklin hid under the radar for years as he targeted young black women, most of who were prostitutes, and killed them in some horrific and brutal ways.
Despite Franklin’s numerous arrests and encounters with the police during the serial killings period and a $500,000 reward, detectives never connected the suspect to the killings until his son was arrested, convicted, and sent to a state prison where he was compelled to put his DNA into a statewide database. A relatively new DNA tool called “familial searching,” which allows law enforcement to look for a close DNA match through a relative, matched DNA evidence gathered in the serial killings and led police to Franklin. While civil libertarians have criticized this evidence-gathering method as an invasion of the privacy rights of family members, its first ever successful use in California will undoubtedly prompt other states to employ the method as well.
The “Grim Sleeper” case is a stark reminder that there could be either serial rapist or serial killers lurking in the thousands of DNA samples left untested in Harris County. There are already political recriminations popping up in the Grim Sleeper case as Los Angeles detectives face questions about why they did not do certain things and why they did others. If the there is serial rapist or even a repeat rapist in the batch of untested Harris County cases, the mayor and the HPD leadership will also be forced to explain “why” $1.3 million for an emergency crime lab was not added to an already staggering $666 million police budget.
Equally significant is the possibility that the testing of the DNA samples could lead to the exoneration of yet another wrongfully convicted person. There have been a total of 255 DNA exonerations in this country with Texas leading the nation in wrongful convictions. It has about one-fifth of all the nation’s DNA exonerations.
The proper testing of forensic evidence not only protects society from the guilty wrongdoer but ensures that innocent defendants are not wrongfully convicted. Effective evidence gathering and testing is the very foundation of our legal system—and the integrity of the system suffers when flawed methods of either evidence gathering and testing are employed, and, worse yet, when evidence has been gathered and left untested.
The need for an emergency DNA lab is not a “budget/political issue.” It is strictly and solely an issue of need—the need to re-establish the integrity of DNA testing in Harris County; the need for an independent and trustworthy lab that doesn’t work under the supervision of law enforcement; the need to remove the HPD from the DNA testing process; and the need to hold the guilty accountable and protect the innocent.
Thus, we would encourage Mayor Parker and the HPD Chief Charles McClelland to join forces with District Attorney Lykos in trying to get the desperately needed emergency DNA lab established. Costs should not be a consideration. The only consideration should be need—and with thousands of DNA cases lying dormant and untested, there can be no reasonable doubt about the need for the lab.
By: Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair