Last winter the Houston Police Department's DNA crime lab came under fire for a litany of forensics flaws. Here's what happenedand how it could affect criminal cases across the state.
How did the HPD’s crime lab get into this mess?
In November 2002 TV station KHOU began airing a series of reports in which independent DNA experts reviewing the crime lab’s work found that members of the lab’s staff had made egregious scientific errors. In January a team of auditors from outside the department announced that it had also found that the lab had failed to meet minimal professional standards.
Which means what, exactly?
For starters, a leak in the lab’s roof had routinely discharged water—which can break down DNA—onto evidence tables. (As a result of Tropical Storm Allison, in 2001, water leaked directly onto biological materials.) In addition, DNA sources were not being properly stored, cataloged, or tested, and evidence samples were occasionally used up in the initial testing, making retesting impossible. Most disturbing, in a few cases members of the lab’s staff were found to have presented DNA testimony to juries that was wrong, in some instances contradicting their own findings.
So are innocent people in prison?
Possibly. In 1999 Josiah Sutton, of Houston, was convicted of rape and sentenced to 25 years, largely on the basis of DNA evidence processed at the Houston crime lab. Independent retesting of the evidence seems to have exonerated Sutton, now 21, and on March 12 he was freed on bail.
Yikes. What about other cases?
The HPD has contracted with Identigene, a DNA analysis company, to retest its DNA evidence. At the same time, the Harris County district attorney’s office has begun reviewing the roughly 1,300 police investigations—including those of seventeen death row inmates—that have been found to involve DNA evidence processed at the Houston lab.”Even if there were a dozen eyewitnesses and six confessions,” said assistant DA Marie Munier,”if DNA helped us to convict somebody, we’re going to recommend retesting.” In March Mayor Lee Brown asked Governor Rick Perry for a moratorium on the death penalty cases until retesting is completed.
Is anyone taking responsibility?
Not exactly. In a February 10 letter to his superiors, lab chief Donald Krueger blamed his unit’s problems on a lack of funds and inadequate staffing, writing that”we are barely able to keep our heads above water.” He retired a few weeks later and has refused interviews. If Krueger is at fault, he isn’t alone. According to the Houston Chronicle, Mayor Brown and HPD chief C. O. Bradford, who is in charge of addressing the lab’s issues, have both admitted to being aware of problems with the lab before the KHOU reports.
How could this have happened?
Good question. To begin with, many police departments—including Austin’s, Dallas’, and San Antonio’s—don’t have their own DNA crime labs. Instead, they send their DNA samples to the county medical examiner’s office or the DPS for testing. Moreover, of the cities in the U.S. that do maintain their own labs, Houston was the largest whose crime lab was not accredited by the FBI, and therefore its standards were not as strict. Critics say accreditation would go a long way toward addressing existing problems.
So is Houston finally seeking accreditation?
Yes. In April the National Forensic Science Technology Center was scheduled to begin an audit of the crime lab to determine what steps would be required to secure federal accreditation. Bradford says that if the cost of bringing the department up to federal standards is prohibitive, he’hll consider contracting with a private lab for good. But Democratic state representative Kevin Bailey, of Houston, is skeptical that the situation is under control and is pushing for a bill that would require all crime labs in the state, private or public, to seek accreditation.”Part of the reason we got into this was that nobody seemed to want to do anything about it,” he says.”The mayor seems to be taking it very easy. The DA’s office hasn’t been forthcoming. I’m not convinced that they understand the seriousness of the situation.”