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June 17th, 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.

More discussion of Kotkin and “Opportunity Urbanism”

Tory Gattis responds to some of the criticism of his Opportunity Urbanism op-ed that was in last Sunday’s Chron, including one of the charges leveled by Lisa Falkenburg. He’ll get another chance to do some responding after seeing David Crossley’s piece today, which also critiques his piece, plus gives some insight into the H-GAC 2035 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). Check it out.

Happy Father’s Day, you old coot

Olivia was born when I was 38, and Audrey arrived just before I turned 41. That makes me a little young for this crowd, but I can still relate.

Paul McCartney had a baby when he was well past 50. So did Rupert Murdoch, Larry King, Cary Grant, Tony Randall, David Letterman and Dr. Michael DeBakey. Writer Cormac McCarthy has said he wouldn’t have written The Road, the novel that won the Pulitzer Prize, if he hadn’t been inspired by the son he had late in life. Older parenthood “wrenches you up and out of your nap,” he told Oprah Winfrey.

Overwhelmingly, making babies is the work of younger men. The National Center for Health Statistics reports just 2.7 live births per 1,000 men 50 and older, compared with 104.9 for men 25-29. The norm is that young people grow up, marry partners close to their own age, have children and then grandchildren.

I became a father at the right time for me to become a father. I’m pretty good at it, if I do say so myself, in a way that I don’t think I’d have been when I was younger and more of a knucklehead. Sure, I worry that my daughters won’t know their ancestry as well as I do mine, but that’s just how it is. No such thing as a do-over in this life, so you make what you can out of what you’ve got. I’d say we’re ahead on balance.

Dr. Steven Mintz, a history professor and director of the American cultures program at the University of Houston, says older fathers make some adults uneasy. They don’t like men more interested in personal growth than growing up.

“We tend to be a judgmental society, and we want people to act pretty much according to our proper calendar,” Mintz says.

“We’re living through kind of a revolution in adulthood, and no one is quite sure how it will play out. … It seems the rules have broken down.”

I call that a feature, not a bug. We could stand to have a few more of those rules break down, if you ask me.

Happy Father’s Day, from my family to yours.


I can’t tell you how good this feels.

Melissa Noriega, a Houston educator whose campaign had strong funding and key support, easily defeated retired Air Force officer Roy Morales in Saturday’s runoff for the Houston City Council At-Large Position 3 seat.

Noriega took 55 percent to Morales’ 45 percent with nearly all but one precinct reporting.


“After you win is where the real work begins. Doing the job is the real work,” Noriega said. “The people of Houston have honored me with their trust and their votes; there’s nothing more powerful than that.”

Noriega will have less time than usual to begin the job. She will be sworn in at City Hall on June 27, after the City Council canvasses the votes from the election.

She has long served as a Houston Independent School District special projects manager, but said she will retire from that position to devote her time to City Council.

“I’m going to wrap up my old life and start a new one,” she said. “I will treat this as a full-time job.”

Melissa Noriega won a well-deserved victory, and the people of Houston get a top-notch new Council member. It’s all good. Congratulations to Council Member Melissa Noriega, and to everyone who helped her get there.

On a side note, from the “Have I Mentioned That Every Vote Counts?” Department:

In Clute, at first the vote was tied and Saturday the runoff election to determine the Ward D representative on the Clute City Council was decided by one vote.

Incumbent Travis Quinn edged out challenger Michael Binnion 29 votes to 28.

Election officials said Saturday that a recount will be held if a candidate requests it.

Saturday’s election was held after the city’s May 12 general election ended with both candidates receiving 12 votes.

I always say that if you didn’t vote and you don’t like the outcome, you’ve got no grounds for complaint. That’s doubly so in this case.

The long march for Dome redevelopment financing continues onward

Another story about another step forward in obtaining financing for the Astrodome redevelopment project.

A company that aims to reinvent the Astrodome as an upscale luxury hotel has gotten preliminary approval to obtain financing for the $450 million project, county officials said Friday.

Astrodome Redevelopment Co. missed a deadline three months ago to show it had the approval, but now can move forward with other stages of the project, said Mike Surface, chairman of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., which oversees Reliant Park.

“This is certainly a significant occurrence in the determination of the future of the Astrodome,” he said.

During the next three months, Astrodome Redevelopment will try to clear another hurdle: convincing the Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo that they can coexist with a 1,200-room, four-star convention hotel.

It feels like there’s been a lot of these stories lately, but I don’t feel like there’s been a lot of new stuff in many of them. It’s not really clear to me what’s changed since the previous installment, for example.

Leroy Shafer, the rodeo’s chief operating officer, said the rodeo and Astrodome Redevelopment have issues to negotiate, including the hotel’s access to Reliant Park during the rodeo, the rodeo’s take, if any, of concession and merchandise sales at the Dome hotel during the rodeo, naming rights and marketing rights.

Astrodome Redevelopment has considered building an overhead ramp from the South Loop to the hotel.

“They either have to go over us or under us. Ingress-egress is a major issue, of course,” Shafer said. “We run our show from fenceline to fenceline.”

This subject first came up about a year ago. I’m still not sure what the logistics of this proposed exit ramp would be. Maybe this is where the whole thing founders, and not financing. We’ll see.

From the “Timing Is Everything” Department

From Thursday’s Chron, in an article on the new red light camera legislation:

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack said cameras might deter some people from running red lights and improve safety.

“But you want to have compliance without trying to gouge people,” Radack said. “It’s as if the city of Houston has figured out a way to extract money from people’s pockets.”

And from Friday’s Chronicle:

By the end of the summer, drivers likely will pay 25 cents more each time they pass through a county toll road booth, and fees likely will continue to rise by more than 2 percent annually during the next two decades.

Proposed rate changes would double EZ Tag rates, now $1 per transaction, and cash rates, now $1.25 per transaction, over the next 20 years.

Commissioners Court will vote Tuesday on the proposed increases, which would increase revenues an estimated $65 million over 12 months. Rates will likely go up between late August and mid-September.

Way to extract money from people’s pockets, Commissioner Radack!