Dedicated Texas Criminal Defender

DNA In Criminal Justice

On Behalf of | Jan 21, 2019 | Evidence in Criminal Cases, Firm News

The Basics of Crime Labs in Houston

DNA is commonly used in criminal investigations and trials. DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the carrier of genetic information present in nearly every living organism. Police frequently collect DNA at crime scenes in order to identify suspects or victims and place them at or near the area of an alleged crime. In Houston, there are multiple labs that law enforcement uses to test and analyze DNA and other material.

There are three publicly funded labs that operate out of Houston. The most well known is the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC). The Houston Forensic Science Center is a spinoff of the Houston Police Department Crime Lab. The police department crime lab was shut down after botched lab tests[1] and testing backlogs[2] rendered the lab unreliable.

The City of Houston’s Crime Lab

In 2014, the City of Houston created the Houston Forensic Science Center independent of the Houston Police Department.[3]

Houston Forensic Science Crime Lab

It is a non-profit entity governed by directors appointed by the mayor and confirmed by city council. It consists of multiple organizational levels consisting of Research & Development, Quality, Operations, and Corporate Administration.

It also has an independent Technical Advisory Group that reports directly to the Board of Directors. Within its operations division is the Biology & DNA Division, which does biological examinations and DNA analysis. Comparative & Analytical Forensics Division consists of controlled substances testing, toxicology, firearms tests, and latent print analysis.

The Crime Scene / Digital Multimedia Division is home to crime scene investigators that actually go to certain crime scenes. This division also contains the trace evidence[4] team as well as digital forensic analysts. Because HFSC’s predecessor was scrutinized heavily for its lack of reliable scientific testing, the Houston Forensic Science Center stays away from more speculative forensics such as blood spatter analysis, bite mark testing, and handwriting comparisons.

The HFSC does not conduct autopsies.

Harris County’s Crime Lab

Harris County also runs its own crime lab, known as the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences (HCIFS).[5] It is split into four main departments: Medical Examiner Service, Crime Lab Service, Quality Management, and Administration.[6]

The Administration department is in charge of finances, records, and building management.

Quality Management keeps track of analytical stats as well as ensure labs are of a certain quality and that training is up to date. The Harris County crime lab does all the fancy CSI analysis. They do forensic genetics (including DNA comparisons), toxicology and chemistry of drugs, physical evidence of firearms identification and trace evidence, and other forensic evidence.

The Medical Examiner typically does forensic imaging of bodies, autopsies, and other related forensic investigations. In 2017 its medical examiner division was one of only nine in Texas accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners Inspection & Accreditation Program, which promotes standards for a quality medicolegal death investigation system.[7] Most recently, the lab introduced automotive paint analysis to assist in hit and run investigations and other incidents involving vehicles.

The State of Texas’ Crime Lab

In addition to these two public labs, the Texas Department of Public Safety has multiple labs across the state, including one in Houston.

The State’s lab does a multitude of testing in Houston, including: controlled substances and drugs testing, firearms testing, blood alcohol analysis, DNA comparisons, trace evidence analysis, biological testing, and fingerprint analysis. The Texas Rangers also provide digital multimedia evidence analysis, arson laboratory testing, and questionable document analysis out of their Austin location.[8]

Forensic science can be unreliable and misleading—especially if a lab isn’t keeping things up to standards. If you or a loved one was convicted because of bad lab science, then contact the Paul Morgan Law Office for possible relief.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission

The State Response to Houston’s Crime Lab Problems

All of the forensic labs in Texas are subject to the Texas Forensic Science Commission. This commission was founded in 2005 as a response to the blatant problems that ran through the Houston Police Department Crime Lab.[9]

The commission was originally tasked with investigating professional negligence or misconduct in labs accredited by the Texas Department of Public Safety. However, shortly after its founding, it became embroiled in a political fight over the role of arson evidence used to sentence a defendant to death.[10]

It was eventually decided that the commission would have little to no role in looking at past convictions but would focus entirely on establishing forensic science standards.[11] The legislature affirmed this decision by expanding the scope of the commission’s responsibilities in 2015 to establish licensing programs for forensic disciplines in all of Texas.[12]

Essentially, the commission recommends to courts what forensic science is reliable enough to be presented in court. The commission has already said that certain arson investigation techniques are unreliable and that bite mark evidence has little scientific basis.

In determining which forensic science is reliable, the commission has looked to multiple sources, including the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and the National Academy of Sciences reports. The National Academy of Sciences released “Strengthening Forensic Science” in 2009. The report essentially said that outside of DNA testing, all other forensic sciences had very little hard science backing them up and the findings often came down to the judgment of the analyst.

The report called for a massive overhaul of how the justice system dealt with forensic science, including accrediting labs and making sure lab techs and analysts were trained by independent third parties outside of law enforcement.

The Federal Government Gets Involved

On April 27, 2009, President Obama announced the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). PCAST was an advisory group of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers who directly advised the President and the Executive Office of the President.

In 2015, the President asked the council whether there are additional steps that could help ensure the validity of forensic evidence used in the American legal system. This was in response to an extraordinarily critical 2009 National Research Council Report. PCAST found that there was a need to clarify scientific standards for the validity and reliability of forensic methods.[13] The council also found that some forensic methods were not even based on valid and reliable science.

Junk Science is Cited

For example, there was literally no evidence that bite mark studies could include or exclude certain suspects but it was still allowed in some courts. It discovered that hair comparisons were inaccurate in as high as 11% of cases, and that there was insufficient research and data to support drawing a definitive connection between two bullets based on compositional similarity of the lead they contain.[14]

Have a loved one being oppressed by junk science?

Call Houston criminal defense lawyer Paul Morgan for help.

Forensic science can be unreliable and misleading. If you or a loved one has been convicted because of junk science, then contact the Paul Morgan Law Office for possible relief.