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A.G. Jamison

Regional crime lab

This has been talked about for some time, and not unexpectedly it’s starting to move forward.

After years of scandal at crime labs across the state, local officials have proposed opening a regional lab based at the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Previous debacles include three Houston exonerations, which occurred because of flawed forensics, questions about conditions at state labs and concerns about mounting backlogs of cases never tested.

To restore public confidence in the Houston Police Department, Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos and Police Chief Harold Hurtt plan to halt DNA testing at HPD and use the regional lab, which could grow to serve the entire Houston-Galveston Area Council region.

Some small counties see no need for a new facility. They already use outside labs such as those operated by the Department of Public Safety.

“It is more wishful thinking than a reality to think that the 13-county region would want to be involved,” said Judge A.G. Jamison, of Colorado County, who chairs the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “There is zero interest in our county.”

However, larger players, such as HPD and DPS, support the proposal. DPS analyzes DNA at its Houston lab but cannot keep up with requests for testing. Last year, DPS’ local lab received more than 1,700 cases with DNA evidence. It completed work on just 1,040, and the total backlog of cases exceeds 1,200 cases.

“There is plenty of forensic DNA demand,” said Tela Mange, a DPS spokeswoman.

The idea of creating an independent regional crime lab has been discussed since the first signs of problems at the HPD crime lab, where the DNA division was shuttered in 2002 after auditors uncovered widespread problems with the quality of work.

Plans gained new momentum in recent months with the election of Lykos.

Three things:

1. Not to sound cranky, but this idea was a plank in C.O. Bradford’s platform for District Attorney as well. As with many other changes Lykos has been implementing since her election, Bradford was speaking about them before she was even a candidate. I’m glad to see this happening, but these plans would be going forward regardless.

2. While I agree with this concept, there are many questions that need to be settled. What jurisdiction would this lab have? Would it operate independently, or would it be aligned with the prosecution, as it the default now? What governance would it have? Maybe we’re too early in the process to have the answers to these questions, but those answers will determine whether this is indeed better than what we have now or not.

3. And of course, there’s the matter of funding. Will the creation and/or funding of this lab require legislative intervention? If so, it may already be too late for this session, though perhaps a budget appropriation is still doable. I realize nothing could really have been done until a new DA was in place, but that does make it hard to get something going in a timely fashion.

I’m not asking these questions because I’m skeptical of this idea. I like this idea, and I want to see it done right. I just want to know more about what they have on the drawing board.