Science

More Problems at the Houston Crime Lab

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An independent audit of 548 fingerprint analyses done by the Houston crime lab found "irregularities" in more than half of them. Two analysts have been put on leave, one has resigned. The three had worked cases in the lab for a combined 84 years.

This is the third forensics scandal to hit Houston in the last several years. In 2006, another independent audit found that…

Houston crime lab analysts skewed reports to fit police theories in several cases, ignoring results that conflicted with police expectations because of a lack of confidence in their own skills or a conscious effort to secure convictions, an independent investigator says in his latest report on the scandal.

In more than 20 cases reviewed in this stage of the ongoing probe, the investigative team concluded that analysts at the Houston Police Department crime lab failed to report the results of blood-typing and DNA tests that did not implicate the suspects police had identified.

That came a few years after local media exposed other problems with the credibility of the lab's experts and its shoddy handling of forensic evidence. In 2004, the Houston Chronicle reported a number a number of questionable autopsies done by Harris County Medical Examiner Patricia Moore, who colleagues accused of tailoring her findings to please prosecutors.

Seems like a good time to note another forensics-related story this week: On Monday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Briscoe v. Virginia, a case many court watchers say could undo or limit last term's decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, which established the right of criminal defendants to cross-examine crime lab experts (as opposed to having experts submit signed lab reports).

The court's membership has changed since the 5-to-4 decision in June in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, which said that the Sixth Amendment's confrontation clause, which gives a criminal defendant the right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him," does not allow the mere presentation of a lab report to prove, say, that white powder found with a defendant was cocaine.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in Melendez-Diaz, said there was only one reason to revisit the issue so quickly.

"Why is this case here except as an opportunity to upset Melendez-Diaz?" he asked. After a lawyer tried to answer what was a rhetorical question, Justice Scalia made his meaning plain: "I'm criticizing us for taking the case."

I wrote about Melendez-Diaz last August. Ideas on how to reform the forensics system here.

CORRECTION: A spokesman from Houston PD called to say that the while fingerprint unit is part of the Houston Police Department, it is separate from the Houston Crime Lab. Apologies for the error.

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  1. Color me completely unsurprised.

    Dateline: 9/25/2008
    Error-prone Detroit crime lab shut down

    The Detroit police crime lab was shut down by the city’s new mayor and police chief after an outside audit found errors in some evidence used to prosecute cases involving murder and other crimes, officials said Thursday.

    Wrongful convictions are a possibility, according to the audit, conducted by the Michigan State Police. Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy also noted that some criminals may have gone uncharged because of the lab’s shortcomings.

    The audit found erroneous or false findings in 10% of 200 random cases and subpar quality control compliance at the lab, Worthy said.

    The report revealed a “shocking level of imcompetence” in the lab and constitutes a systemic problem, she said at a news conference. When it came to recognized work standards, the lab met only 42% of a required 100%, Worthy said.

  2. If the precedent were named Reizenstein-McGuffey v. Massachusetts, I’d be worried.

  3. I’m just waiting for an episode of CSI that actually reflects reality. You know, the roof leaks, the ventilation system is broken, stuff rots in the refrigerator, samples get lost or mixed up, innocent people get convicted, the true perps go free.

  4. JdubD’s story is right, it is systemic. This will continue long as the system is rigged so that police departments and prosecuters get rewarded for having more convictions.

  5. Note that Scalia is taking the position that the Court should note reverse its decision that defendants have the right to cross-exam crime lab employees.

    Souter voted with the 5-4 majority in Melendez-Diaz, so if Sotomayor votes pro-cop and anti-cross-examination, the case is reversed.

  6. But Scalia said that was not good enough, and read from his own decision in Melendez-Diaz: “The Confrontation Clause imposes a burden on the prosecution to present its witnesses, not on the defendant to bring those adverse witnesses into court.”

    Right on, Justice Scalia.

  7. Where are the “Scalia is always anti-liberty” wackos now?

  8. Anytime the HPD lab is in the news, i expect more of this. Somebody get Annise Parker on the phone and see if she wants to make fixing this a priority. Lee P. and Bill White made all kind of mouth noises, but the place is still jacked. Justice may be blind, but she shouldn’t be doing the lab work if that’s the case.

  9. Funny. I just applied for a lab position at the Houston Crime Lab (I’m out of state and wasn’t aware of the problems). Now I hope I don’t get a call back.

  10. Shouldn’t a crime lab be, I dunno, unaware of what the prosecutors and cops *want* the results of a test to be? You know, all impartial and stuff?

    How is telling the lab what their results *should* be legal or even remotely ethical??

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