One of the biggest pieces of justice malfeasance in Southeast Texas was the Houston Police Departments crime lab. The Houston Police Department crime lab has been under a dark cloud for several years now. It started when problems were discovered in the DNA lab. Those problems resulted in at least two innocent people being sent to prison in sexual assault cases. Since then, incompetence and misconduct has been found in the ballistics lab, toxicology lab, and serology lab. When you thought the incompetence could not get any worse, it did.
The “controlled substances” section of the lab actually fabricated test results to confirm police suspicions and prosecute people. The practice, called “drylabbing,” involved the forensic “scientists” never actually performing the required lab tests, but instead completely fabricating the results. In one case, the “scientist” was supposed to test tablets that the police suspected were a date-rape drug. Instead of testing the tablets recovered from the defendant, the “scientist” tested a known sample of the date-rape drug itself, and reported the results as a test of the tablets from the defendant.
In a state that leads the nation in both DNA and non-DNA exonerations from it’s prisons because of false convictions…well…it’s more than fair to say, Houston, we have a problem! Today, Houston Mayor Annise Parker (D) proposed taking control of the city’s crime lab away from the police department and handing it to an independent seven-member board with expertise in forensic science and fiscal management. “I clearly prefer to have our forensics sciences not under the influence of police, prosecution or politics,” Parker said.
There are no details yet on where the crime lab would be located or how to come up with what a written report identified as the “significant” start-up costs for a new crime lab. But among the options the city intends to explore is locating its crime lab inside a tower the county intends to build for its crime lab. Even if the two governments cannot agree on the joint formation of the regional independent crime lab Parker seeks, city officials believe the facility on which the county intends to begin construction next year may have room for two separate labs.
“It would be a sad day if we were to go and renovate some existing facility or acquire a new facility and the county were to continue building a new facility,” said Councilman C.O. Bradford, on whose watch as police chief a decade ago problems with the city crime lab became public. “To the extent that we can save public tax dollars and not duplicate equipment and not duplicate a facility, I think we will have scored a perfect score.”
Parker proposes forming a local government corporation — a hybrid of sorts between a non-profit organization and a government agency — that would become the new employer of 188 police and civilian employees who currently work for the police department’s crime lab. The city envisions that the seven-member board would include a representative from the Innocence Project, the organization that uses DNA testing to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. Parker herself would appoint the board members. Council would confirm them. City Attorney David Feldman explained that such a board, because members could only be removed for wrongdoing, would be more independent than the county medical examiner, who is an at-will employee of Commissioners Court. It’s hard to say exactly how this will shake out but it is a huge first step in rebuilding confidence in a justice system that, quite honestly, cannot be trusted.