Tainted Justice Tainted Justice

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