Tainted Justice Tainted Justice

"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

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