Justice and Public Safety

Police Crime Labs Struggle with Funding, Training and Bias Issues

Houston PD Crime Lab upgrades after critical investigation.

by / July 8, 2008 0

Life for Josiah Sutton when he left prison was as uncertain as the evidence that convicted him. Sutton spent the heart of his teenage life in prison for a rape he didn't commit after the culmination of sloppy lab work and negligence by the Houston Police Department (HPD) Crime Laboratory and his defense team.

Sutton could have easily been exonerated with a simple DNA test of an evidence sample. Four years after his conviction, he finally was. At age 21, Sutton walked out of prison in 2003.

The Sutton case was one of more than 3,500 cases processed by the HPD Crime Lab dating back to 1980 that were reviewed by independent investigators after major problems were exposed in late 2002.

The reviews found hundreds of cases where incompetence, inadequate training and resources, lack of guidance and even intentional bias on the part of a crime lab - which is not independent from the HPD - contributed to mistakes.

"It's really a complicated issue not just for this crime lab. With this crime lab, almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong," said Marie Munier, chief of the Public Service Bureau with the Harris County District Attorney's Office, which prosecuted Sutton and others whose cases are still being examined to determine the extent of mistakes and whether they led to wrongful convictions.

Some problems with the HPD Crime Lab - such as underfunding, poor staff training and close ties to police and prosecutors - also may be inherent in crime labs across the country.

A 2004 investigation by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found 23 DNA testing errors in serious criminal cases handled in a Washington state lab. In North Carolina, the Winston-Salem Journal recently ran a series of articles about many DNA testing errors by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. In Virginia, it took an outside investigation to clear Earl Washington Jr., who was falsely convicted of capital murder and nearly executed. An independent lab reused the same samples that led to his conviction but found contradicting results.

That's not all. DNA testing errors are cropping up nationwide: California, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Nevada have documented major problems recently.

Munier agreed the troubles are widespread. These issues have prompted critics to call for greater independence among the nation's crime labs, which typically are run by law enforcement agencies.

In Houston, chronic problems with forensic evidence produced by the crime lab resulted in new independent oversight and accreditation of the facility, as well as increased investment in staff salaries, equipment and training.

"One of the most critical parts of a lab is to have outside scrutiny, and that was not occurring," said Irma Rios, the new director of the Houston lab. The facility now undergoes external and internal audits; proficiency testing and competency testing of the examiners; retesting of completed cases; blind sample testing; testimony monitoring, and internal and external training.

In addition, the lab installed cameras and limited access to personnel with card readers. "We're implementing a laboratory information system where there's a lot of traceability of people," Rios said. "Those are some of the things we've done to increase the monitoring."


The Problems
In late 2002, television station KHOU in Houston looked into deficiencies of the HPD Crime Lab and asked William Thompson, University of California, Irvine professor and forensic expert, to investigate.

"The problems were just obvious," Thompson said. "They weren't running proper scientific controls. They were giving misleading testimony. They were computing their statistics incorrectly - in a way that was biased against the accused in many cases."

In some cases, Thompson found simple errors where documentation said Sample A matched Sample B, for instance, which was untrue. There were cases where Thompson found inconsistencies between the lab report and what

was said in court.

"Along the way, I encountered this case of Josiah Sutton, where not only did the lab work look sloppy and bad, but it looked like they'd misinterpreted the results in a way that they'd reported something as incriminating when it was exculpatory."

In addition to improper or incomplete lab work, the work wasn't being reviewed by anyone, and in many cases the results weren't available to the defense until trial, at which time it was sometimes declared too late for the defense to get an independent analysis of blood or DNA evidence - if there was any blood or DNA left.

Like most labs, the HPD Crime Lab could barely keep up with its workload because staff were underpaid, lacked training and weren't properly supervised.

In the Sutton case, a lab analyst used "poor technique," and had insufficient training, according to the Bromwich reports, www.hpdlabinvestigation.org, one of the independent looks into the lab. The analyst produced "ambiguous results, reflecting complex mixtures." The report said the lab's murky work was exacerbated by its practice of not accurately explaining just how inconclusive the results were.

During the Sutton trial, for example, the lab analyst testified that the DNA found on the victim was an exact match to Sutton's, when in actuality 1 in 16 black men would be a similar match, according to Thompson. Further, the analyst used all four vaginal swabs, not a necessary or advisable practice, limiting the possibility for retesting.

Though most of the errors can be attributed to sloppiness, incompetence and lack of training, Thompson found that the lab ordinarily erred on the prosecution's side. Lab analysts cut corners by not using control samples to make sure there was no cross-contamination between two samples - a common problem in crime labs. "When I started looking at this, that was the first thing I saw," Thompson said. "Where are the controls? The answer is they didn't have any."


No Safeguards
And there was nobody to review or catch the problems - no safeguards in the system.

"To the extent that labs are doing bad lab work, there's a whole series of points at which that should be caught," Thompson said. "The criminal justice system in Houston, and much of Texas, doesn't really function effectively to screen and evaluate scientific evidence, or probably many other kinds of evidence."

Thompson said there were times when well funded defense lawyers would file discovery motions and go to court to get access to lab materials and hire their own lab experts to test the materials. In many cases, they found problems.

"So it wasn't that nobody knew the lab was doing bad work, because the lab had been shown to be doing bad work over the last 10 to 15 years," Thompson said. "Once the well funded private attorneys would win their cases, things would go back to normal - the rest of the lawyers wouldn't pick up on that and take advantage of the insight to do their own work."

The defense attorneys can't be absolved of blame in the problems with some of the cases, but even Munier admitted the defense is playing with a different deck of cards because it doesn't have equal access to the lab tests.

"Our procedures in Texas are more streamlined and the discovery process is more restrictive, so defense attorneys didn't get to see all the stuff from the laboratory until trial sometimes," Munier said. "Were there times when the defense attorney should have looked closely at [the evidence] and said, 'I want this tested' but didn't have it tested? Probably. Were there times when the judge said, 'Sorry, we're going to go to trial anyway'? Probably.

"It's not good. In hindsight, you could say, 'No, they should see the stuff so they can have an expert look at it and say you've got some problems,'" Munier continued. "All these things played a part in the train wreck, and then you have the police department, where the crime lab is seen as the stepchild: They don't fund it. They don't have enough staff. ... It's like the perfect storm."

The HPD did not respond to a request for an interview.


A Cry for Independence
One solution for crime labs is to operate more independently of the police department and the DA's office. Crime analysts are given evidence from a crime and usually told to look for something in particular. When the evidence or lab test results are unclear, the analysts might have incentive to find results favoring the police's case. "I think forensic labs get a little bit caught up in the heat of the battle from our adversarial process," Thompson said.

"It's like team spirit. They see the defense counsel as their enemy and tend to be kind of secretive and not want to disclose things outside of the family."

Another problem for crime labs, Munier said, is they don't have the resources or time to test every bit of evidence. "When you have 50 pieces of evidence, what do you test and what do you look for if you're not told?" She suggested giving the state some items to test and saving some for the defense. "Where you say, 'We're going to test a few items for [the state] and provide items for the defense.' It's an enormous problem and it's everywhere."

There is plenty of shared blame, but part of it stems from a misunderstanding of DNA evidence. "No lab is perfect, and part of the problem with DNA labs is there's such propaganda surrounding DNA testing," Thompson said. "People are routinely claiming that it's infallible."

He said anytime new scientific evidence is admitted into the legal system, it undergoes screening for admissibility. Proponents of the new science go overboard in advocating for it to the point that they claim it's error-free. "In fact, that was never true," Thompson said. "Like anything else, you can mislabel the samples or misinterpret the result."

Munier said there has been a large learning curve associated with the use of DNA in Houston and everywhere else. "Most of the training we got was internal, and nobody around here knew much about DNA," she said.

"We weren't trained adequately about the emerging science of DNA and neither were the defense attorneys. There were a few hired experts who helped them, but that was just here and there. And the judges were as ignorant as everybody else."

The lab now has been accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board. The Bromwich reports touted recent progress, but how much have things improved?

"It's really not clear. It's probably too early to tell," said Stephen Saloom, policy director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted. "I would think with appropriate leadership, staffing, training and management, you could change the culture there, but the leadership will be critical, and the follow-through."

Accreditation is a step toward accountability. There is a series of on-site inspections; the proficiency testing of lab workers is reviewed; procedures are reviewed to assure the lab has a quality control system in place. "We do an extremely thorough review," said Ralph Keaton, executive director of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board, which accredited the HPD lab.

The lab is required to do an annual assessment and report any instances of noncompliance. Of course, accreditation doesn't mean a lab is suddenly exempt from

problems. "The HPD lab is and has been accredited for a while," Keaton said. "A lot of the issues occurred prior to its accreditation, and they keep resurfacing."

Rios, the new lab director, said it takes time to change an organization's culture, but that change is under way, along with systemic changes to assure quality control.

She added that it's a constant battle to instill in employees the mission and purpose of the lab. "If you're an independent private lab, independence implies having no conflict. However, there have been issues even at private independent labs," Rios said. "There's no guarantee that a member of an independent lab won't engage in dishonest behavior."

For example, the Illinois State Police recently canceled a contract with one of the largest independent labs in the country because of the lab's poor quality. 

One way to improve lab performance is to increase salaries, improve the quality of staff, supply more training and obtain better equipment. Rios said all of that has been done with the help of $3.4 million in grants.


Still More Problems
In January 2008, the HPD lab's DNA supervisor, Vanessa Nelson, resigned after an internal investigation concluded she had helped crime lab analysts pass DNA skills tests by improperly giving them test answers. Within weeks she was hired by the state crime lab as DNA chief, prompting State Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, to call the hiring "shocking."

Thompson said it was that inherent team culture that prompted Nelson to cheat. "The same kind of pressures that existed before existed again," he said. "Why would this brand-new head of the DNA unit cover up a cheating problem on proficiency tests? Because she's under the same pressure they were under before."

Of course, crime labs across the country are facing DNA backlogs, are underfunded and understaffed and are tied to law enforcement, which contributes to their ineffectiveness. All agree a more independent model would benefit the justice system.

"A key is good professional leadership," said Steve Hall, project director of the StandDown Texas Project aimed at organizing a moratorium on executions.

"An independent model definitely helps foster that. Anytime you have people essentially working where they feel like they're on the same team, you've got the potential for a culture that turns a blind eye to problems."

Thompson pointed to New York and California as states that have oversight bodies - forensic science commissions that oversee the state's labs. Thompson serves on the new California commission. "It's hard to say how that's going to go," he said of the California commission, which he said is dominated by law enforcement members.

The New York commission is aided by Innocence Project founders Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld as commission members. That's at least a step in the right direction, but not one that will return the years Josiah Sutton and others lost in prison.

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor