The unfortunate history of mishaps at Houston crime labs is well documented. The local Houston Police Department Crime Lab was shut down after botched lab tests and testing backlogs rendered the lab unreliable. In 2014, the City of Houston created the Houston Forensic Science Center independent of the Houston Police Department.
Integrity of Results Remain Questionable
However, the new Forensic Science Center still faces problems rendering reliable results. First, the center is still housed at Houston Police Department headquarters in downtown. The center has requested money from city to move to another location. However the proposed location is a building that currently houses the Harris County District Attorney’s office, which still presents an issue of possible meddling by law enforcement or prosecutors. Officials at the Forensic Science Center say that a new location is needed because the space it currently occupies is converted office space rather than purpose built laboratories.
The Contamination of DNA Evidence Continues
The most recent issues with the science center has less to do with lab design and more to do with staff training problems. In 2016, investigators mistakenly contaminated evidence in at least three cases, and a 2017 audit revealed that crime scene investigators made mistakes in 65 cases—including 26 murder cases. A lab analyst was also caught shredding notes from a homicide investigation.
Managing the workload of a major crime laboratory seems to be an issue plaguing the Houston center as well. When the FBI issued new data analysis requirements in order to improve the accuracy of lab tests the Houston Forensic Science Center stalled. The lab has barely caught up on 6,600 rape kits leftover from the shuttered Houston Police Department Crime Lab and has 950 outstanding evidence requests that are over 30 days old—including 200 sexual assault kits and materials from 150 homicides. The lab eventually caved to pressure announced that it would outsource the testing of 1,000 cases. The lab said it would also increase cross-training of staff so more individuals would be qualified to analyze data.
The Lesley Diamond Case
But, for some, this late attempt to improve the reliability of forensic science results and technician training is too little, too late. In 2014 Lesley Diamond was charged with class B Driving While Intoxicated. However, her conviction was enhanced to a class A because a lab tech testified to a jury that her blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. The lab technician, Andrea Gooden, was suspended earlier in 2014 after altering her supervisor that she had mistakenly analyzed a blood sample. The blood sample that had been submitted by an HPD officer was riddled with labeling errors. Her supervisor then failed to report the suspension to the district attorney or Diamond’s defense counsel.
As a result, Diamond’s lawyers were unable to present valuable evidence that the lab failed to follow even its own procedures. In 2015, the Texas Science Commission, a commission that overseas crime labs in the state, issued a report which harshly criticized the Houston Lab for intentionally failing to document this suspension as well as describing the lab manager as “professionally negligent.” Fortunately, Diamond’s care was overturned by a Court of Appeals in Houston.
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