June 17, 2007
A way forward for the HPD Crime Lab

Op-ed writer Ellen Marrus has a straightforward solution for the HPD Crime Lab.

If officials behind the HPD lab are feeling the heat, they can take comfort in knowing they are not alone. Crime labs throughout the United States are under assault for employing people and practices that have cast palls of suspicion over lab results. Rather than confidently presenting "ironclad evidence" to their juries, prosecutors have been pushed back on their heels by questionable lab results that can ruin an otherwise solid case.

Across the country, two primary factors loom as the culprits behind this epidemic of ersatz evidence. The first is severe underfunding that makes it difficult to hire or retain competent technicians. The second is the way many jurisdictions place crime labs within law enforcement agencies -- an arrangement that prompts lab technicians to view themselves as "advocates for the prosecution" rather than the impartial scientists they need to be.

Added together, these two factors help foster police crime labs that are run by technicians with relatively weak scientific backgrounds who believe their job has a single objective: to generate testimony that will produce convictions. These factors are at the root of police lab fiascos not only in Houston, but also in cities throughout the country.


There's an easy, albeit expensive, way to fix the national crisis in forensic crime labs. Lawmakers should find a way to allocate more funding for these labs, and they should remove these facilities from the control of law enforcement agencies.

I agree with this completely, and so does Grits, who has advocated similar reforms for some time, and who has a third suggestion to take these ideas a step further. The key thing that everyone has to accept before we can really fix this problem, and it's something I've harped on again and again, is that every time we put an innocent person in jail we're not just grievously wronging that person, we're also leaving a guilty person on the streets to keep committing the crimes we've locked the innocent guy up for doing. It's bad twice over. If we're genuinely serious about fighting crime, we have to take every reasonable step we can to minimize this kind of injustice. The whole system is a failure if we let it be easy for innocents to be ensnared.

But there has to be the political will for this. I think we're getting to the point where that will happen, but we're not there yet. It's easy to criticize Mayor White, Chief Hurtt, and DA Rosenthal for not wanting to spend the money on a special master to oversee the reviews of questionable convictions, but will we also criticize President Bush, the Congress, Governor Perry, and the Legislature for not providing an adequate funding mechanism for crime labs so that the root cause of these problems can be addressed? Because if we don't, sooner or later we'll be right back here again.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 17, 2007 to Crime and Punishment