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.