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Lawsuit filed over untested rape kits

This could be a big deal.

A former Houston woman is suing the City of Houston and a long list of current and former mayors and police chiefs for failing to investigate a backlog of more than 6,000 untested rape kits, and not identifying her attacker as a man who had been in a national police database for decades.

In one of several cases brought by victims against officials around the country in recent years, the victim of a 2011 sexual assault in Houston claims in a federal civil rights lawsuit this week that her perpetrator could have been apprehended and prosecuted for earlier crimes if officials had kept on top of the massive backlog of DNA samples in the city’s possession.

DeJenay Beckwith, 35, who now lives in Milam County, contends city officials failed to pursue a serial offender in her case, or investigate rape kits for other victims, because they don’t take women or child victims seriously. She is seeking damages, saying city officials violated her rights to due process and equal protection, and officials illegally took her property and violated her personal privacy and dignity under the Fourth Amendment.

[…]

Houston tackled the backlog of rape kits in early 2013 under former Mayor Annise Parker and ex-Chief Charles McClelland, drawing on $4 million in federal grants to outsource DNA testing with private forensic labs. Parker led the initiative to remove the crime lab from HPD management in April 2014 – although it remains in the HPD headquarters building – after the creation of an independent city-funded lab now overseen by civilian forensic experts.

According to court documents, Beckwith met her assailant on April 2, 2011, when he pretended to be a mechanic and offered to fix her broken down car. He asked to come inside her Southwest Houston home for a glass of water.

According to the lawsuit, he proceeded to throw her to the floor, strike her repeatedly and rape her. She chased him on foot, and a neighbor joined the chase, but he escaped in his car.

A rape kit taken at Memorial Hermann Southwest as a result of her police report was taken to the city’s crime lab.

Beckwith’s lawyers say the kit went untested for five years. During that time, she got one phone call from a detective who wanted to know what she was doing wandering on Bissonnet when she met her assailant, implying she was a prostitute and saying, “These things happen.”

The detective discouraged her from filing a report, telling her it was unlikely the suspect would be caught, according to the lawsuit.

She next heard from Houston police in 2016, when they contacted her to say they tested the DNA and they had a suspect. She later learned the man’s name was David Lee Cooper. Cooper had prior sexual assault convictions, including one from 2002 involving minor child. His DNA had been in the Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS and managed by the FBI, since 1991.

The details of what happened to Ms. Beckwith are awful and troubling, and if the account of what the detective told her is accurate, I hope he’s no longer in that job. It’s too late to do anything to help Ms. Beckwith in any meaningful way, but we sure can get to the bottom of why this all happened and take steps to make sure it never happens again. The Press and ThinkProgress have more.

Let’s use mutant mosquitoes to fight Zika

What could possibly go wrong?

The Bayou City’s teeming mosquito population spawns in dark, wet nooks and carries a slew of deadly tropical diseases that could ravage the region.

So Houston is pondering a sneak attack, something akin to a Trojan Horse. Harris County officials are negotiating with a British biotech company, Oxitec, to create and release mutant mosquitoes genetically engineered so that after they’re set loose in the wild, offspring die, and the mosquito population dwindles.

Deric Nimmo, principal scientist at Oxitec, said it is a paradigm shift – “the release of mosquitoes to control mosquitoes.”

If an agreement is finalized, Harris County could become one of the first locations in the United States to use the mosquitoes, going far beyond the chemicals and public-awareness campaigns the county has long relied upon.

[…]

Oxitec spun off from Oxford University 15 years ago to commercialize proprietary strains of insects, namely mosquitoes. The hope is that they can help reduce populations of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the Zika virus, dengue fever and chikungunya, among other deadly illnesses. The mosquitoes are common in the Houston region.

Oxitec inserts a “self-limiting gene” into a male mosquito and releases several into the environment. Those mosquitoes then mate with females – Oxitec claims their special males out-compete normal males – and the resulting offspring die before they become adults. Over time, the overall population of the Aedes mosquito declines.

Male mosquitoes do not bite and can’t spread disease.

The company has conducted field trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands and says it has reduced the Aedes mosquito populations by up to 90 percent in each location.

“It looks like we’re going to do or plan to do some sort of trial initially to test out the system,” Nimmo said.

Oxitec has yet to try out its technology in the U.S.

[…]

According to the FDA, if Oxitec wanted to conduct a field trial in Harris County, the company would have to submit an environmental assessment to the agency.

Another complication: Regulatory authority over Oxitec’s mosquitoes would then likely shift to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mustapha Debboun, director of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division, said working with Oxitec could provide another tool in the fight against Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

“We’re not abandoning the tried-and-true” approaches, said Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who has been leading the efforts. “We’re willing to see – What can we add to the tried-and-true that can make this better, especially considering that the tried-and-true has some flaws?”

Unseasonably warm weather has prompted the division to boost staff during winter months. It has seven investigators now, compared to four, and two additional public education staffers, Debboun said.

In August, officials nearly doubled the number of Aedes mosquito traps across the county to 134. Harris County also continues to partner with Microsoft to develop high-tech traps that will sense and nab only certain species of mosquitoes, like those that carry Zika or dengue, and eventually hopes to utilize drones to find and target hot spots.

After receiving a federal grant, the county hopes by May to start research on whether mosquitoes in the region that could carry Zika are developing resistance to certain pesticides. The county also will use that money to test more mosquitoes for Zika, Debboun said.

“The crucial part of all this is to find out if the mosquito has the virus in it,” he said.

Yes, remember the Microsoft Mosquito Drone story? Nice to hear about it again, even if there isn’t much to report yet. As far as Oxitec goes, their approach is one I’ve heard about as a possible way to limit the growth of the A. aegypti population and the many diseases it helps propagate. Maybe it will work without serious unanticipated side effects, but we would be the US pioneers for such a test. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but as the consequences of doing too little are West Nile and Zika, I’m not sure how wishy washy one can be about this. What do you think?

Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences officially opens

Excellent news.

I still want one of these

The greater Houston region now has a sophisticated asset to investigate and solve crimes with the official opening of the new Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences (HCIFS).

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and other dignitaries, including Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, attended a ribbon cutting ceremony at the new facility on Thursday March 16th.

The Institute is located in the Texas Medical Center and it is an impressive state of the art nine story building.

Funded by a bond that was approved by the voters back in 2007, Harris County has invested 75 million dollars in it.

The facility serves both as a crime lab and as the medical examiner’s office.

Among other tasks, its staff will perform autopsies for cases investigated by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) and the Houston Police Department (HPD).

Doctor Dwayne Wolf, deputy chief medical examiner at the HCIFS, explains that “about 11,000 deaths are reported to our office every year, of which we bring in 5,000 bodies for examination, either for autopsy or external examination.”

Construction of this facility was approved to begin in June of 2014, with an expected timeline of three years, so this was on schedule. I expect great things.

Harris County crime lab experiencing DNA testing backlog

These things do happen.

I want one of these

Never miss a chance to embed the DNA Robot

Expanded testing for property crimes has helped create a backlog of more than 4,600 DNA cases in the Harris County crime lab, straining its ability to complete the processing of such evidence for sexual assaults and even homicide cases in a timely manner.

Officials with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences say a relentless uptick in property crime, robbery and assault cases has stretched the lab’s resources. The spikes can be traced in part to the lab’s own push in recent years to expand its forensic operations and offer law enforcement agencies more DNA testing for property crimes.

The lab serves more than 60 law enforcement agencies, which rely on it to process DNA evidence as part of criminal investigations. Officials are particularly concerned about how the backlog has affected sexual assault cases, which they’ve pledged to make a priority as the cases have recently taken longer to finish.

Sexual assault cases took on average of 172 days to complete in 2015, far from the county’s 60-day goal and the roughly 60 to 90 days that they took from 2009 to 2013 The average for homicides and death investigations is now 238 days, though it is more difficult to set a benchmark in such cases because evidence often comes in piecemeal over time.

The backlog – defined by county lab officials as containing any case that has not been completed – has set off a debate over how to prioritize DNA testing in the short term and handle lesser offenses such as property crimes in the long term.

[…]

[Crime Lab Director Roger] Kahn said the lab already has essentially halted analyses of DNA in some property crimes. Last July, the institute said it would suspend “touch DNA” analysis – such as testing for microscopic skin cells containing DNA that naturally rub off on objects – for almost all property crimes.

The moves have contributed to a drop in the number of sexual assault cases that take more than 60 days to complete: after reaching 252 in January, that number was 148 last month, Kahn said.

He stressed that the high numbers are also in part because of new protocols to reanalyze some cases that have samples containing multiple people’s DNA. These, he said, can often be the most complex cases.

All this being said, Kahn acknowledged that the turnaround times are too high.

He said lab officials are looking at halting some analyses of assault and robbery cases. The lab is also planning to work with sexual assault nurse examiners to better identify samples to analyze in such cases, and is weighing other possible workflow improvements.

For their part, county commissioners on Tuesday approved the crime lab’s move to apply for a National Institute of Justice grant of more than $645,000 that would help its DNA division – the Forensic Genetic Laboratory – reduce the backlog. It has applied for and received the same grant since 2005.

Commissioners also approved a roughly $100,000 contract to outsource some property-crime testing to a private company, Bode Cellmark Forensics, an uncommon move but one that the county has made in the past.

[…]

It’s unclear what will happen to property crime cases, and possibly robbery and assault cases, that the county crime lab may set aside to focus on sexual assaults and homicides. Kahn said the lab works closely with law enforcement and the district attorney’s office to prioritize cases, even those involving property crimes.

At Wednesday’s meeting, District Attorney Devon Anderson questioned whether the lab should be making decisions of what types of cases to prioritize.

Sheriff Ron Hickman said telling the public that the county lab had the technology to solve crimes, but couldn’t use it because of lack of resources, would not “play well.”

“How do you get to say, ‘No?'” Hickman said.

Kahn said the current focus is on sexual assault cases. Then lab officials, with other public officials, will determine how best to use the lab’s resources.

There’s a lot there and I don’t want to make too big a deal over it. Both DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman raise good questions, for which they deserve better answers than “we’ll figure it out later”. If this is a matter of resources, then Commissioners Court needs to address that. The County Crime Lab serves multiple cities in addition to the county, so it’s not just their own business that’s being affected.

We can’t discuss the Harris County crime lab without mentioning the Houston lab and the ongoing debate over whether the two should merge. I’ve noted before that there are questions about how the county handles crime lab issues and how the city’s needs would be accounted for. This situation highlights those concerns. As the story notes, the city’s crime lab has its own backlog issues, though they are smaller and seem to be on track towards resolution. I’m just pointing this out to note that there are questions to answer before anything can go forward. If you want this to go forward, which is certainly a reasonable thing, those questions need to be addressed. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s not nothing and shouldn’t be treated as nothing.

The pros and cons of merging the crime labs

The calls to merge the city and county crime labs are back, but not everyone likes the idea.

Merging Houston’s and Harris County’s crime labs, an idea that was rejected several years ago by the city’s mayor when forensic work was shifted from the police department to a new independent agency, is getting a fresh look by local officials eager to save money and avoid duplication.

All of the members of the Harris County Commissioners Court are renewing calls for the county to take over forensic work from the city lab, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week that he is interested in pursuing either a merger or further partnership with the county, in contrast to his predecessor.

Yet some at the city’s forensic science center are loathe to forego its independent structure. They wonder whether a shakeup for a lab only just pulling away from its troubled history would cause more harm than good.

“I think cooperation between the two organizations is entirely possible,” said Peter Stout, chief operating officer of the Houston Forensic Science Center. “But merger? I’m not sure whether the citizens are going to get the benefit from that on a timeline that makes sense. And they risk backing up on demonstrable progress that we’ve made to this point.”

Even so, Turner has asked his chief development officer to explore what such a move would entail as county staffers examine potential funding and governance for such a venture and how it might affect the time it takes to process evidence.

“How much volume do they have at the City of Houston? What would have to take place as (to) not only the amount of space, but how would we merge?” are among the other questions, county budget director Bill Jackson said.

[…]

Despite mounting political enthusiasm for a joint venture, however, several city forensic science officials were skeptical of the idea, noting the logistical challenges of a merger they characterized as financially and scientifically risky.

“We’re not producing a widget here,” said David Leach, the group’s chief financial officer. “We’re producing a service which is helping protect the citizens. So, how much are you willing to risk?”

Such an endeavor would require negotiations over governance and funding rooted in the politically touchy question of control.

“What’s the structure going to look like? How’s that going to work? Who’s going to fund it? What are the working cultures of the two labs like? You could end up with two groups of employees with different working philosophies,” said William King, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University.

The county’s Institute of Forensic Sciences now reports to county commissioners, the county’s governing board. None of the staff work for law enforcement.

The Houston Forensic Science Center, on the other hand, is overseen by a board of directors appointed by the mayor. About four of 10 staffers are city employees, either HPD officers or civilians.

Governance was among the sticking points after a civil grand jury recommended consolidating the crime labs for the city of Los Angeles and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, said Barry Fisher, former director of their sheriff’s crime lab.

The move could have had potential savings of nearly $3 million, according to the grand jury. But they kept their operations separate, Fisher said, calling the prospect of the county taking over city police forensic work a “deal breaker.”

“Sheriff’s and LAPD management indicated that they did not believe it was feasible to consolidate the two agencies’ crime lab services into a single agency,” according to a 2010 audit of the project. “They believed that differences in forensic policies, possible conflicts over operations and prioritization of cases, and additional administrative requirements made consolidating the services unworkable.”

Fisher said city leaders worried about their ability to prioritize cases if they had to compete with other jurisdictions for crime lab services. Instead the city and county work together in the same building in a partnership with a local university, which has produced other benefits, Fisher said.

“There’s interaction on a regular, daily basis,” he said. “I’ve watched people who are working on a particularly difficult, high-profile case walk over to somebody in the other lab, the city lab, and say ‘What do you think about this?’ ”

Governance was the main reason why Mayor Parker declined to pursue a joint crime lab. She also noted in the exit interview she did with me that the projected savings from a joint operation would be minimal. Be that as it may, this Chron story from last July illustrates the concern over governance:

The thieves leave invisible evidence on kitchen countertops, china cabinets, garage doors and steering wheels that can lead to their undoing: microscopic skin cells that contain their DNA.

In Harris County, these “touch DNA” samples have in recent years identified hundreds of suspects in home burglaries and car break-ins that would have been nearly unsolvable without them.

But now the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences has sent out a memo to the 69 law enforcement agencies it serves suspending touch DNA analysis due to diminished resources and burgeoning demand.

Officials were forced to temporarily halt the service, ironically, because testing for touch DNA has been so successful.

“We didn’t anticipate this remarkable growth and what law enforcement has done to embrace DNA testing services in general,” said Dr. Roger Kahn, the forensic institute’s crime laboratory director. “We need to reassess our service levels in order to keep up.”

The suspension will not affect the Houston Police Department, which relies on the city’s crime lab to perform DNA analysis. The Houston Forensic Science Center began performing DNA analysis in some property crime cases after the city cleared HPD’s backlog of thousands of rape kits awaiting DNA testing.

But the county crime lab’s suspension of the cutting-edge forensic testing, which it took the initiative to offer eight years ago, could impact property crime investigations for dozens of law enforcement agencies.

It’s a matter of how things get prioritized, and who gets to decide what those priorities are. Houston and HPD would be the biggest customer in a joint crime lab, but not the only one. What happens when the city has a disagreement with a decision the joint crime lab makes? Or when the city feels its needs are not being adequately met? These are not insurmountable problems, but they do have to be addressed before it makes sense to get hitched. If and when they are worked out to the point that everyone feels their needs can be met, then it makes sense to proceed. Until then, I understand why the city is reluctant to give up something that is working for them.

I just don’t care about Blue Bell

Sorry.

Paul Kruse’s father had warned him about the perils of family-run businesses, but he couldn’t escape his place as the obvious heir of a dawning ice cream empire.

After ascending to the corner office in 2004, Kruse delivered Blue Bell Creameries to its greatest height, becoming the No. 1 U.S. brand.

This year, it took barely two months to undo everything.

Ironically, Blue Bell’s food-poisoning crisis could give it a one-up on competitors, because it already has been forced to make expensive changes to equipment and safety protocols that other ice cream makers soon will have to emulate under new federal regulations. It took most of the year to upgrade while other brands gobbled up market share.

Blue Bell, for most of its history, moved at a measured pace.

That strategy won ardent followers as Blue Bell went into rural markets where competitors wouldn’t or couldn’t reach. With Kruse still in the driver’s seat, the company’s future may hinge on his ability to return to a course charted by his forebears.

[…]

Before the listeria crisis struck in March, it sold more than $333 million, according to Euromonitor figures updated in August. As a privately held company, Blue Bell doesn’t publicly disclose sales. But by that reckoning, it had, in one quarter, sold more than half of what it did in all of 2010 – and peak summer sales hadn’t even set in yet.

All that production came with a price. Brenham plant workers said sanitation was hurried. Hot water ran low. And federal records showed that problems reached to plants in Oklahoma and Alabama, negating the possibility that the listeria outbreak was a failure of one supplier, one machine or one employee. Somewhere amid all that growth, reality couldn’t keep up with the clean country image. Worse, it hadn’t been keeping up for years. Epidemiologists this year determined that illnesses from as early as 2010 were caused by Blue Bell – retroactive medical sleuthing made possible by the DNA database.

I’m not a native Texan, so I have no emotional attachment to Blue Bell ice cream. It’s just another brand to me. My wife, on the other hand, is a native Texan, and she feels deeply offended by the betrayal of trust by Blue Bell, which acted awfully indifferent to its listeria problems until they were finally forced to act. For that matter, she’s offended by their long, incomprehensible list of ingredients, which look a lot more like a science project than something that could plausibly called “homemade”. If you love Blue Bell and couldn’t wait for it to come back to your grocery store, more power to you. I don’t get it, but I’m not going to judge. I do hope that if they ever have another problem even remotely like this that they’re not given the benefit of the doubt. Once was enough.

John Bradley does John Bradley things

From Grits for Breakfast:

Former Williamson County District Attorney and Texas Forensic Science Commission Chairman John Bradley – who left Texas to become Attorney General of the island nation of Palau after facing national disapprobation, losing reelection, and struggling to find work in Texas as a prosecutor – has been suspended “for ten working days without pay on grounds of insubordination” by Palau’s Vice President, reported Pacific Beat.

In response, according to this source, Bradley issued a statement declaring the VP had no authority to suspend him, defending his record in Texas, suggesting the veep committed a felony by suspending him, and threatening a defamation suit.

Some people seem to make friends wherever they go.

This is vintage John Bradley; our man appears in top form.

The President, who is out of the country, was quoted as saying he hadn’t reviewed Bradley’s suspension but expected the vice president’s decision was made in the “best interest of the Republic.”

See here and here for the background. I admit, it’s a bit unseemly to keep piling on the man, who clearly can’t help himself. But honestly, how can one resist?

DNA mixtures

Grits reports on the latest developments in forensics at a hearing of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, and what it means to the legal system in Texas and elsewhere.

First, a bit of background. DNA testing looks at two metrics on X and Y axes: Whether alleles are present at various loci, and the quantity of DNA available for testing at that spot. (The latter is complicated by allele drop-in, drop-out, and stacking, terms I’m only beginning to understand.) When examining the peak height of DNA quantity on the test results, DPS’ old method did not impose a “stochastic” threshold, which as near as I can tell is akin to the mathematical sin of interpreting a poll without ensuring a random sample. (The word “stochastic” was tossed around blithely as though everyone knew what it meant.) Basically, DPS did not discard data which did not appear in sufficient quantity; their new threshold is more than triple the old one.

That new methodology could change probability ratios for quite a few other cases, the panel predicted. One expert showed slides demonstrating how four different calculation methods could generate wildly different results, to my mind calling into question how accurate any of them are if they’re all considered valid. Applying the stochastic threshold in one real-world case which he included as an example reduced the probability of a match from one in 1.40 x 109 to one in 38.6. You can see where a jury might view those numbers differently.

Not every calculation will change that much and some will change in the other direction. The application of an improper statistical method generates all types of error, not just those which benefit defendants. There may be folks who were excluded that become undetermined, or undetermined samples may become suspects when they’re recalculated. The panel seemed to doubt there were examples where a positive association would flip all the way to excluded, but acknowledged it was mathematically possible.

DPS has identified nearly 25,000 cases where they’ve analyzed DNA mixtures. Since they typically represent about half the state’s caseload, it was estimated, the total statewide may be double that when it’s all said and done. Not all of those are problematic and in some cases the evidence wasn’t used in court. But somebody has to check. Ch. 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure grants a right to counsel for purposes of seeking a DNA test, including when, “although previously subjected to DNA testing, [the evidence] can be subjected to testing with newer testing techniques that provide a reasonable likelihood of results that are more accurate and probative than the results of the previous test.” So there’s a certain inevitability about the need to recalculate those numbers.

See here for the Texas Tribune story that Grits references – WFAA also covered the hearing – and be sure to read the whole post. There’s a lot of scientific info out there if you google “DNA Mixtures”, but I’m not informed enough to point you to something useful. As noted, DNA is still very exact when comparing known samples, or in isolating a suspect from a rape kit. It’s when there are multiple unknown DNA donors that things get complicated, and there isn’t a single standard for that now. What we do know is that the method that had been used to provide match/elimination probabilities were not accurate, and some number of convictions in Texas and elsewhere will need to be reviewed in light of reinterpreted DNA evidence. Ultimately, questions about what the standards are and how the evidence should be analyzed will be settled by the courts, from the CCA to SCOTUS. This will be a long and occasionally messy process, and we’re at the very beginning of it. On the plus side, this should provide all kinds of fodder for mystery writers and TV showrunners. So at least there’s that.

All backlogged rape kits have been tested

Great news.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston officials have completed the lab testing and review of a three-decade backlog of rape kits, yielding 850 matches in the national DNA database.

On Monday, Mayor Annise Parker, District Attorney Devon Anderson and police department and crime lab officials trumpeted the newly complete testing of the 6,600 kits as a major milestone. Now, however, those 850 hits fall to HPD and prosecutors to determine whether charges can be pressed.

So far, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office has prosecuted 29 suspects, disposing of seven cases. One was dismissed because the complainant did not want to go forward with the case, and the others resulted in sentences ranging from two years to 45 years, said Jane Waters, head of the District Attorney’s Office’s special victims bureau.

“I know this milestone is of special importance to the rape survivors and their families and friends because pit means their cases are receiving the attention they should have years ago,” Parker said. “If there is a chance of prosecution in a case that has languished or new cases that are uncovered, that prosecution will happen.”

Anderson also acknowledged for the first time that in some cases alleged assailants committed other crimes, including rape, while their DNA sat untested. She said she did not know off-hand how many suspects fit that description, but there may not have been enough DNA at the time to generate a profile in some cases. Waters added after the press conference that some may have involved victims who chose not to move forward with their cases at the time.

“Yes, it did happen unfortunately,” Anderson said. “We are eagerly looking forward to prosecuting those rapists, those repeat rapists.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The last of the kits was sent off to the lab in August of 2013, so at this point all the work has been done. One pleasant surprise to come out of this was that there were no exonerations. I would have bet a modest sum of money at the beginning of this story that at least one wrongly convicted person would be freed as a result of this. I’m glad that none of the men who will be put into prison because of these rape kits will be replacing someone who shouldn’t have been. KUHF and Hair Balls have more.

Michael Morton still has work to do

We should be glad he’s doing it.

Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, said Monday that under current DNA testing requirements, he wouldn’t have had access to the evidence that led to his release.

Morton joined state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and lawyers from the New York-based Innocence Project at a press conference to urge passage of a bill to expand access to DNA testing in criminal cases.

“This is about making sure the right person is convicted and making sure our communities are safe,” Ellis said.

Senate Bill 487 would allow courts to grant DNA testing for pieces of evidence that have a “reasonable likelihood” of containing biological material, like saliva or sweat, that may not be visible to the naked eye.

A February 2014 ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals set a precedent of only granting DNA testing on pieces of evidence if there was proof that DNA evidence existed on those items. The court denied death row inmate Larry Swearingen’s request for DNA testing on the pantyhose used to strangle the victim because it wasn’t clear that tests would turn up any evidence.

“If the interpretation of the law as it stands now was enforced when I was trying to get access, I would not have been able to see that access,” Morton said. “We would not have been allowed to test it.”

SB487 would clarify another bill by Sen. Ellis from last session (SB1292) that mandated DNA testing for all biological evidence in death penalty cases. That’s in addition to the Michael Morton bill that will more tightly control the disclosure of evidence by prosecutors to the defense. The Observer highlights the importance of this session’s effort.

Innocence Project attorney Nina Morrison, who represented Morton, said that the bill “strikes the right balance” by giving judges the appropriate amount of discretion to order testing without turning the courts into DNA testing mills.

In Morton’s case, it took a court five years to grant permission to run a DNA test on relevant evidence.

“For somebody to be in a court battle about whether there is evidence for testing when the labs can just tell us—it just seems like a real waste of everybody’s time,” Morrison said.

Who knows, maybe if now-former Williamson County DA John Bradley hadn’t worked so hard to waste everyone’s time back then, he’d still be DA now. Too bad for him. SB487 should have bipartisan support but there still needs to be a House sponsor. Let’s get on with this, y’all. Grits has a copy of Sen. Ellis’ press release, and the Innocence Project has more.

More suspects arrested from the rape kit backlog

More good news.

Houston’s effort to test a nearly three-decade backlog of sexual assault kits has resulted in new charges filed against 19 people, city officials said Monday, including 10 suspects identified and arrested for the first time.

One of the new suspects has been charged in connection with two assaults; another remains at large, Houston Police Department spokesman John Cannon said. The other eight suspects, he said, already are in jail on other charges and now face sexual assault charges.

City Council in 2013 paid $4.4 million to two private labs to test DNA samples from 9,750 cases, including a backlog of 6,600 rape kits dating to 1987. The labs’ work is nearly done, and staff from HPD and the city’s forensics lab now are entering all eligible genetic information into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a national law enforcement database.

So far, DNA from 1,031 of those cases has produced “hits,” meaning a suspect’s DNA already was in the database in connection with an earlier crime. In the vast majority of cases reviewed to date, officials said the suspects are known to police, having been arrested, convicted or detained at some point.

HPD Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said the reviews have confirmed police arrested the right person in 58 sexual assault cases, but officials did not release details Monday about these cases or the 19 suspects hit with new charges. The Houston Chronicle reported in April the testing had identified at least one serial rapist already in jail on other charges.

The police officials gathered Monday at City Hall with Mayor Annise Parker and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to celebrate the renewal of a federal law that frees up millions of dollars to help cities test sexual assault kits. Parker and Cornyn also lauded the city task force – headed by three lieutenants, eight sergeants and 33 investigators – charged with clearing the backlog by updating criminal cases and making arrests as suspects are identified.

See here, here, and here for the background. Let me also recommend that you read Emily DePrang’s in depth story in the Observer about how we got here, and how HPD is now leading the way nationally when it comes to dealing with untested rape kits. A few bits to whet your interest:

The trouble is, demand for DNA testing in many places continued to outstrip growth in crime-lab capacity. Backlogs, once cleared, would quickly form again. In 2009, a CBS News investigation found that rape kits in Alabama and Illinois took, on average, six months to process. In Missouri, the wait was almost a year.

These kits—the ones submitted by law enforcement to crime labs for analysis but not returned for more than 30 days—are what the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, considers “backlogged.”

But that’s not what happened in Texas.

Rather, most of the 19,000 kits reported (so far) never saw the inside of a lab because a sexual assault investigator made the decision not to have them tested. Victims who endure DNA collection may understandably assume it will be analyzed as part of the investigative process, but until recently, law enforcement officers could choose whether to test a kit. Often, they chose not to.

This was by no means limited to Texas. A 2011 survey by the National Institute of Justice found that, on average, nearly one in five recent unsolved rape cases nationally contain forensic evidence for which police never requested analysis.

The language used to talk about untested kits can obscure this deliberateness. If only for brevity, law enforcement and victims’ rights advocates alike have embraced the term “backlog” to describe all untested kits, but this can wrongly suggest that testing was attempted or intended. The term “backlog” implies the problem was simply a lack of resources instead of a conscious decision by police not to test. Similarly, untested kits are usually described as having been “discovered,” often “discovered in a warehouse,” as if evidence for thousands of sexual assault cases had been misplaced. That’s misleading, too.

“I think on some level jurisdictions love to use the word ‘discovered,’” says Sarah Tofte, vice president of policy and advocacy for the national Joyful Heart Foundation, “because that makes them feel, in a way, a little bit better, and maybe look a little less culpable.” The Joyful Heart Foundation runs the website EndtheBacklog.org, a clearinghouse for information on the quest to test all kits. Tofte says, “I think when people hear, ‘Oh, they discovered a backlog,’ they imagine there was some abandoned meat locker somewhere in a field, and they opened it and said, ‘Oh my gosh! There are all these untested rape kits! We had no idea.’ But yes, jurisdictions know. They know because it’s their policy. If their policy is, ‘Don’t send everything to the lab,’ there shouldn’t be a surprise when there’s a backlog.”

[…]

In 2010—before [Sen. Wendy] Davis’ bill—HPD, on its own initiative, had already implemented a test-all-kits policy. Then it successfully applied for a competitive grant from the National Institute of Justice. The grant, awarded just to Houston and Detroit, provided funds for the city not only to inventory its kits, but to study why so many went untested for so long, and to institute reforms. This wasn’t a secretive internal probe, either. Since early 2011, guided by the grant, HPD has hosted regular meetings of a diverse team of researchers, victims’ advocates, health care workers, forensic scientists, prosecutors and police brass, all dedicated to improving their response to sexual-assault survivors in Houston. When the grant ends in October, the group plans to continue its work independently.

Before sitting down together as part of the straightforwardly named Sexual Assault Kit Action-Research Task Force, many of these parties hadn’t previously communicated, let alone collaborated. Others, like victims’ rights advocates and some HPD investigators, were downright adversarial. As part of the group’s research, social scientists surveyed the attitudes of people in the justice system toward victims’ rights advocates and found that investigators in HPD’s Adult Sex Crimes Unit were particularly averse to outside meddling. One investigator told the group’s researchers, “…[Advocates] lead the woman to believe things that aren’t true.” Another complained, “[Advocates] have an agenda and take the woman’s side immediately.”

Undeterred, HPD moved forward with a plan to add a “justice advocate” to the Adult Sex Crimes Unit: a master’s-level social worker charged with improving investigators’ interactions with victims. The advocate, Emily Burton-Blank, was installed within earshot of investigators—a major breach of traditional police insularity—and investigators were required to involve her when contacting victims prone to dropping out of the process, such as people who are homeless or suffering from mental illness.

“Where we saw a large issue was the fact that a lot of people were dropping out of the system shortly after reporting [their rapes],” says HPD Assistant Chief Lentschke. “So we looked at that. How can we keep them in longer? Emily [the advocate] is a living, breathing idea. She’s done magnificent. And the investigators who were so anti-advocate … now they absolutely love her. That’s a huge turnaround.”

Sonia Corrales, chief program officer for the Houston Area Women’s Center, agrees. “Whenever we send a survivor [to HPD],” she says, “we know that when they talk to Emily, they’re getting really great service.”

The justice advocate position was originally slated to last less than a year and be funded only through the grant, but HPD officials quickly found the results so impressive that they made the position permanent and committed to hiring more advocates in the future.

It’s one of several steps HPD has taken to improve its treatment of sexual-assault survivors. New policies now require investigators to go into the field to investigate assaults rather than closing cases if victims fail to return phone calls or respond to a letter. The adult unit recently set aside a private room in which to take victims’ statements rather than interviewing them in the open, surrounded by other staff and ringing phones. And investigators have gotten new training, including education on the neurobiology of trauma so they can better recognize and respond to it.

But most important, HPD leadership has committed to ending the culture of victim blaming.

It’s a great story, so go read the whole thing. And did you notice the reference in there to Wendy Davis? A bill she authored in 2011 provided funding for rape kit testing, requiring every law enforcement agency to tally and report its untested sexual assault kits, and mandating that law enforcement agencies submit kits to a crime lab within 30 days. HPD as noted had gotten started before then, but the rest of the state wouldn’t be where it is now without that bill. Every one of these arrests is a reason to celebrate, as is the revelation – which I admit comes as a bit of a surprise – that no wrongly convicted offenders have been identified. With the winding down of this important project, the city’s new Forensic Science Center should be in good position going forward to ensure that there is never again this kind of backlog. Kudos to all for getting this done, and to Mayor Parker for making it a priority of her administration. Grits has more.

Palau catches a little heat for hiring John Bradley

Hilarious.

The president of Palau has defended appointing a US lawyer who left his previous role as Texas county prosecutor amid controversy over an innocent man who spent almost 25 years behind bars.

President Tommy Remengesau confirmed former Williamson County district attorney John Bradley would take up a position as assistant attorney general in the tiny Pacific nation later this month.

[…]

Remengesau said Bradley acknowledged he was wrong to block the DNA testing and “is painfully aware that his actions kept an innocent man locked up for longer than he should have been”.

But he said Bradley deserved a second chance and was seeking it in the island nation of 22,000 people, which is best known for its spectacular diving sites.

“Mr. Bradley says that the Morton case has changed him as a person and has made him a more balanced, fair, and humble prosecutor,” Remengesau said in a statement.

He said Bradley had more than 25 years of prosecution experience and had never been found to have violated any law or ethical rule over the Morton case.

“The Republic hired Mr. Bradley because our nation needs experienced and skilled prosecutors to help keep our community safe Mr. Bradley fits that bill,” he said.

See here for the background. Like Grits, who found this story, I don’t buy Bradley’s claims that he’s a changed man. As noted in that previous post, he has made claims to that effect before, but so far has not backed them up with action. I hope, for his sake but more importantly for the sake of the people of Palau, that he’s sincere this time. I’d nonetheless advise President Remengesau to keep a close watch on him.

John Bradley’s second act

Lisa Falkenberg brings a fascinating and unexpected update to the story of John Bradley, the former Williamson County DA and Texas Forensic Science Commissioner who served as one of the main villains in the Michael Morton case.

Since losing elected office, Bradley has tried to find work. In 2012, I wrote about him applying to lead the state’s Special Prosecution Unit.

No one would take him. Until now. It seems Bradley has landed another prosecutor’s post. Not in Texas. Not in the United States. In the tiny Republic of Palau, where, according to several sources, Bradley has accepted a position in the attorney general’s office.

The former U.S. territory of about 20,000 people in Micronesia was granted independence in 1994, and now operates in “free association” with the United States.

Barry Scheck, co-founder and co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, said he learned about Bradley’s new job in a mass email from Bradley’s wife.

[…]

Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and a former colleague of Bradley’s at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said he hoped the island nation would provide a fresh start for his friend.

“It’s been awhile,” Kepple said, referring to the Morton revelations. “You know, maybe he gets another chance. Maybe he’s got to go all the way to Palau to get it. But I wish him well.”

Scheck, at the Innocence Project, echoed that sentiment.

“He’s certainly going quite a few thousand miles away in order to reinvent himself and we’re all in favor of second acts in American lives,” Scheck told me Tuesday.

Even Michael Morton maintained his graciousness when I asked what he thought about the prosecutor who wronged him returning to prosecuting.

“I don’t wake up every morning gnashing my teeth and shaking my fist at, you know, ‘where’s John Bradley?’ I’ve literally and figuratively moved on,” he said.

“At this stage of the game, I wish him well,” Morton said. “And, you know, adios.”

Morton’s Houston-based attorney John Raley, who worked the case for free, and fought Bradley at every turn as he tried to stymie Morton’s appeals, was a tad less gracious.

“I’m not aware of any evidence that he has learned the lessons of the Morton case,” Raley said of Bradley. “His actions in the future will answer that question.”

Part of me thinks everybody, even John Bradley, has the right to make a living, to learn from mistakes and to get on with life after grievous errors.

The other part thinks Bradley is still a danger to justice everywhere, even 8,000 miles away.

I’ve said repeatedly on this blog that I’m a believer in redemption. It’s the Catholic in me – I may not be a churchgoer any more, but what I learned while I was stays with me and still shapes how I think. The thing is, as we Catholics also know, you can’t be absolved of a sin until you stop committing it. Other than one brief feint in the direction of acknowledging his responsibility in the Morton saga, John Bradley has never shown any indication that he thinks he did anything wrong. If it were up to him, Michael Morton would still be in jail, Ken Anderson would still be on the bench, and the evidence that exonerated Morton and ousted Bradley and Anderson would be in a box somewhere, if it hadn’t been destroyed. So count me in the tad-less-gracious group here. It’s fine by me if John Bradley wants to put his life back together, but he can do that outside the practice of law. Flip burgers, sell cars, groom dogs, dig ditches, paint houses – there’s tons of honest, dignified jobs John Bradley can hold that won’t put him in a position of power over someone’s freedom. If he truly wants redemption, he knows what he has to do to earn it. Grits, who is more gracious than I, has more.

Equality is about more than marriage

It’s about families, and lots of other things, too.

RedEquality

Joe Riggs and Jason Hanna never expected to make national news after a surrogate mom gave birth to their twins.

Riggs, 33, and Hanna, 37, have been together almost four years. They’re best known in the community for collecting teddy bears at Christmas for Children’s Hospital to donate to children going through chemotherapy or other serious procedure. They’ve donated about 1,000 bears so far. At their Christmas parties, they also collect money to divide between the Family Equality Council and Stand Up to Cancer.

“I always wanted a family,” Hanna said. “We both grew up in loving households.”

[…]

Last summer, the couple married in D.C. and in August had their religious ceremony at Cathedral of Hope. Riggs parents walked him down the aisle. His grandparents flew in for the ceremony as well.

But what would make the family complete for them was children. So last year, they enlisted the services of a surrogate to give birth to their biological children. Because Riggs had fertilized one of the eggs and Hanna the other egg that was implanted in the surrogate, they didn’t know which baby was biologically which dad’s when the boys were born. The eggs came from an anonymous out-of-state donor. So neither father’s name went on the birth certificate in the hospital.

So they went to court to end the surrogate’s parental rights and get their names on the birth certificates. The surrogate had signed the paperwork to relinquish her rights. (The woman who carried the babies had acted as surrogate before, but this was the first time she had done so for a gay couple.)

But the judge turned them down.

“The judge stated she couldn’t grant the adoptions with the petition in front of her,” Hanna said.

They had DNA tests and presented those tests as part of the petition. It didn’t matter. Not only did the judge turn down the surrogate’s request to end parental rights and have her name removed from the birth certificate, the judge refused to place the name of the biological dads on the birth certificates.

Finally, the judge turned down a request for each of the dads to adopt the other’s baby. So legally, the boys have one unrelated surrogate listed as their mother and no father.

“There are issues with these documents,” the judge said, without indicating what those issues were, according to Hanna.

I can’t begin to think of a valid reason for something like this. Surrogacy, demonstrating paternity, cross-adopting – these are all standard, not-the-least-bit-unusual things. What makes this even more exasperating is that as the story notes, filing this paperwork in a different county – Dallas, Bexar, Travis, Harris – would have led to it being routinely processed. Riggs and Hanna can refile in another county to get this mess straightened out, but they shouldn’t have to do that. This is just wrong, and it deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting – a Google News search on “Joe Riggs Jason Hanna” found no mainstream Texas news stories; the closest was this post in the Morning News LGBTQ Insider blog. The story has gone national, so maybe it will get some coverage here as well. It sure would be nice. Thanks to Texas Leftist for the heads up.

UPDATE: I got the impression from the Dallas Voice story above that Harris County would be a viable place to file for a second parent adoption, but the feedback I’ve received in the comments below and on the Facebook page say otherwise. As such, I’ve edited accordingly. Thanks for the correction!

A Greg Abbott threefer

Trail Blazers: Dallas appeals court rules fired prosecutor can pursue whistleblowing case against Greg Abbott’s office

You want to be the boss, you get to deal with boss problems

In May 2009, a former assistant attorney general in Greg Abbott’s office sued the Office of the Attorney General in Dallas County court, claiming she’d been fired for refusing to lie under oath about a Dallas County judge. Five years later, the Dallas-based Fifth Court of Appeals has ruled that Ginger Weatherspoon can go forward with her lawsuit.

The AG’s office has spent years trying to get the suit tossed, claiming, among other things, that Weatherspoon didn’t make a “good faith” effort to blow the whistle to the right links in the chain of command. A three-justice panel disagreed, and issued an opinion Monday written by Justice David Evans that said Dallas County Judge Martin Hoffman did the right thing last year when he refused to grant the AG’s office its request for summary judgment.

Weatherspoon’s initial filing in 2009 garnered media attention because of its explosive content: She claimed she refused to sign a “false affidavit” filled with “a number of misrepresentations and mischaracterizations” about David Hanschen, who, at the time, was a Dallas County family court judge involved in a pretty nasty tussle with the Abbott’s office over child support.

Long story short: Hanschen was letting men take DNA tests to determine whether kids at the center of child-support battles were actually theirs. As the judge told the Dallas Observer in April 2008, “In my court, the truth does not have a statute of limitations.” But Abbott’s office disagreed, and would file emergency court orders in attempts to stop the DNA tests. Megan Feldman wrote that “supervising attorneys within the office’s Child Support Division launched a concerted campaign to collect affidavits from nearly a dozen staff lawyers — in some cases exerting pressure on them — with the apparent goal of filing a complaint alleging judicial misconduct against Hanschen” and another family court judge.

Weatherspoon said she was among those being pressured into signing an affidavit critical of Hanschen. The problem was, she “never witnessed Judge Hanschen treat an AAG adversely in court or issue a prejudicial ruling against an AAG,” said her lawsuit. She also said that “Judge Hanschen never threatened the AG’s office,” despite what the affidavit alleged.

“A managing attorney with the OAG, Paula Crockett, told her they intended to use the affidavit as evidence to have the judge recused from hearing cases involving the OAG,” says the recap issued by the appeals court Monday. “The affidavit was also going to be used to support a judicial misconduct complaint against the judge. Weatherspoon refused to sign the affidavit stating that she believed it misrepresented various facts regarding her conversation with the judge and mischaracterized the tone and nature of the conversation.”

Weatherspoon continued to refuse to sign the affidavit, despite mounting pressure from regional attorneys in the AG’s office. And in the end, she says, that’s why she was fired.

You can see the full opinion at the link above. Gotta admit, I hadn’t heard of this before, but it sure doesn’t sound good for Abbott, especially when he’s made a big deal about ethics and transparency.

Waco Tribune editorial: Attorney general decision hinders public from readily learning of chemical threats

We can think of lots of good reasons why everyday, ordinary Texans should know whether a plant in their neighborhood has stockpiled enough chemicals to blow out a crater and flatten homes and schools. Topping the list: the decided allergy that state leaders have about regulating industry — even when such industry poses a possible threat to the lives of state leaders’ own constituents.

That’s why we have trouble understanding the reasoning behind state Attorney General Greg Abbott’s abrupt decision to refuse to give the public key information about where plants stockpiling ammonium nitrate are located. More than a year after fire at the West Fertilizer Co. ignited a huge supply of ammonium nitrate that killed 15 people, injured hundreds and destroyed homes, schools and a nursing home, the attorney general suddenly says the Texas Homeland Security Act forbids the state’s health agency from any longer releasing inventory reports on such facilities because the fertilizer might be used to make bombs.

Supposedly, this will deter terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh, who legally got ahold of some 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, which he detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and destroying the structure, payback for the federal government’s role in the Branch Davidian siege near Waco in 1993.

Ordinarily, we’d agree with the attorney general’s logic on why the location and amount of such explosives should be kept secret. The problem is the state’s dread of regulating and enforcing regulations ensuring people are safe. Even now, our state lawmakers hem and haw over whether they should regulate dangerous chemicals where people live, work and play. Amazing.

Not surprisingly, all this undermines the intent of the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986, which allows citizens to access information on what chemicals are stored and used in their neighborhoods. The act — signed into law by President Ronald Reagan — was designed to help the public be proactive after a deadly mix of gases escaped a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killing thousands. Happily, for the moment federal trumps state, allowing local residents to gain such relevant information from the Waco-McLennan County Office of Emergency Management.

[…]

The attorney general’s decision is definitely at odds with growing efforts to prevent another West, including last month’s federal task force report, prompted by the 2013 explosion. It concludes that “communities need to know where hazardous chemicals are used and stored, how to assess the risks associated with those chemicals and how to ensure community preparedness for incidents that may occur.” If the state of Texas continues to balk at ensuring such plants are safe, the public needs to know more, not less, to better protect itself from devastating possibilities.

Did I say something about transparency? Yeah, maybe not. And if you think that Governor Greg Abbott would support stronger regulations on fertilizer plants, well, I’ve got a load of fertilizer to sell you.

Statesman: Texas must pay legal fees in redistricting case, judge rules

In a scolding order, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., told the state of Texas on Wednesday to pay almost $1.1 million in legal fees to lawyers who represented Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis and several minority rights groups in a case challenging district boundaries drawn by the Republican-led Legislature.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer’s order criticized lawyers in state Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office for submitting a legal brief that devoted more effort to complaining than it did to answering the legal issues in the fight over lawyer fees.

“Texas basically ignores the arguments supporting an award of fees and costs,” Collyer wrote, noting that state lawyers instead presumed the request to be frivolous and expressed “indignation at having to respond at all.”

“This matter presents a case study in how not to respond to a motion for attorney fees and costs,” said Collyer, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.

In her order, Collyer found that lawyers’ fees are “uncontested and reasonable,” and Davis’ attorneys are entitled to $466,680 and other lawyers should get more than $600,000.

Not been a great week for Greg Abbott, has it? PDiddie and Rick Hasen have more.

HPD’s good, bad, and ugly

The good news is that the testing of backlogged rape kits has led to the identification of a serial rapist in Houston.

Houston police on Tuesday for the first time identified a criminal suspect – a possible serial rapist – from testing of sexual assault kits that once gathered dust in the police property room.

HPD sex crime investigators said Herman Ray Whitfield Jr., 43, has been charged with four counts of aggravated sexual assault going back to 1992, and said he may have had more victims.One of his victims, police said, was a 12-year-old.

The identity comes one year after two independent labs began processing about 10,000 cases, including 6,600 untested sexual assault kits, that were stored in the HPD property room. The city turned to an outside lab after DNA testing at HPD’s crime lab was suspended when an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work.

In February, Houston Police Department brass said partial results of a DNA testing had not resulted in any false arrests. And while HPD confirmed the testing had led to a number of arrests, they would not reveal the exact number or identify any suspects.

“I don’t think it’s surprising. You have thousands of untested rape kits, and when you start testing them you’re going to start making connections,” said Mark Bennett, a veteran Houston criminal defense attorney.

“If there are rape victims who wouldn’t have been raped if the authorities had done their jobs properly, we should all be outraged by that.”

[…]

Whitfield was sentenced in 1994 to 30 years in prison for kidnapping and served 12 years before being paroled in 2006, [Sgt. John] Colburn said.

He confirmed the evidence in the sexual assault cases was developed by DNA testing by the independent labs.

From 2006 to 2009, Whitfield was living near Airport Boulevard and Texas 288 in the Sunnyside area but had several different addresses before being sent back to prison in 2009 on a parole violation, according to officer Holly Whillock.

At some point during his parole, Whitfield’s DNA was entered into a national database, allowing police to later link him to the four local cases, Colburn said.

His victims ranged from 12 to 30.

Three of the assaults occurred before he went to prison: Dec. 15, 1992, 4300 block of Alvin; Feb. 16, 1993, 4300 block of Alvin; and Aug. 30, 1993, 4400 block of Wilmington.

The other charge stems from an attack on June 11, 2008, in the 4300 block of Wilmington. In that case, police released a composite sketch of the attacker, based upon the victim’s description.

Grits was the first to publish about this, and he notes that there will likely be more such identifications when all is said and done. It’s great that this criminal will be held responsible for his rapes, hopefully to the tune of a life sentence, but as Mark Bennett said in the story, the fact that he wasn’t tied to those crimes before now is a tragedy and an outrage. The failures of HPD’s crime lab are well known, but there has been plenty of other bad news for HPD in recent weeks, all of which led to this blistering editorial in the Chron, in which they call for a third-party investigator to do a thorough examination of HPD’s practices.

It seems like a month can’t go by without HPD landing itself in another controversy. There were two HPD lieutenants who retired, with full benefits, amid allegations of sexual harassment. The crime lab faces an internal investigation after reports that a former employee did not follow proper procedures over the last two years. This comes on the tail of untested evidence, faked results, inaccurate fingerprinting and contaminated blood tests. We thought those days were over.

HPD has also yet to properly address a lauded two-part article by Texas Observer writer Emily DePrang documenting rampant and unpunished police brutality in Houston. Nor has HPD taken significant steps to address police shootings, even after a series of articles by Chronicle reporter James Pinkerton revealed that a quarter of civilians shot by HPD over the past five years had been unarmed.

Now we’re learning that the homicide division simply ignored stacks of cases and failed to keep track of documents. The problems go all the way to the top: City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police sergeant, kept homicide case files after leaving the force (“Council member imposes penalty on self,” Page A1, Thursday). Because of this incompetence, a man charged with murder now sits out of reach in Honduras. How many other murderers roam free because Houston’s police officers refused to do their jobs?

Neither Mayor Annise Parker nor District Attorney Devon Anderson should be satisfied with HPD’s performance. The department’s failures undermine its reliability in the courts and its trustworthiness in the hearts of citizens. All of Houston suffers when HPD falls down on the job, yet it seems like officers get off with a slap on the wrist.

See here and here for those two Observer stories by Emily DePrang; I’ve got links to the Chron stories about shootings here. I’d like to see this be an issue in the DA’s race and in next year’s Mayoral race. Frankly, given that DePrang’s stories were published last summer, it should have been an issue in the 2013 Mayor’s race. Instead of his half-baked reform ideas, Ben Hall should have been all over HPD’s discipline problems and used them to attack Mayor Parker hammer and tong. Sure, a lot of this stuff predates her, and institutional change is hard, but hey, the buck stops here. Every Mayoral wannabe next year needs to be pressed on this. It’s embarrassing, it’s unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

More details on the rape kit backlog results

HPD reports to Council about the progress of testing done on the backlogged rape kits.

No false arrests by Houston police have been uncovered during an ongoing $4.4 million testing of thousands of old rape kits, but new suspects have been developed with DNA, leading to an undisclosed number of arrests, police commanders told City Council members Tuesday.

Houston Police Department Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard told the council’s Public Safety Committee that 280 “hits” from DNA profiles resulted from the 6,170 cases returned so far to HPD from private labs. Last year, two labs began processing nearly 10,000 cases for usable evidence, including 6,600 untested sexual assault kits, the oldest stretching back to 1987, that were stored in the HPD property room.

DNA testing at HPD’s crime lab was suspended in 2002 after an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work including unqualified personnel, lax protocols and inadequate facilities that included a roof that leaked rainwater onto evidence.

Slinkard and Capt. Jennifer Evans said that so far, the DNA testing has not found any instances of HPD mistakenly arresting someone.

“There are zero indications of false arrests at this time,” said Evans, who heads HPD’s Special Crimes Division.

[…]

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, emphasized the 280 hits does not mean HPD is looking for hundreds of active sexual predators.

“I think there’s been an handful of arrests already, but it’s very rare when you get a hit where it’s somebody who is still on the street,” said Hunt, explaining the criminal is usually in jail on another charge.

See here for the previous entry. As of that story, there were still 2410 kits that were being reviewed by HPD to ensure they met standards for federal DNA testing. I don’t know if that has been completed or not, based on this new story. In any event, we got 280 hits in CODIS, of which I presume some are people that are already incarcerated for something, some are the offenders that had been convicted in these cases on other evidence, and some are people that had not been previously identified or arrested as the offender. We don’t have a whole lot more information than that, most likely because the cops don’t want to tip off someone they’re planning to track down. I am certain that the first arrest made based on this evidence will be sufficiently publicized. Beyond that, I’m glad there’s progress. I look forward to seeing this all brought to a completion.

Not just DNA

There are a lot of other exonerations that happen around the country, for crimes major and minor, that don’t involve DNA.

ExonerationsByYear

In September 2006, [Corey] Love was charged by Houston police with possession of between one and four grams of cocaine, a felony. He was 20 years old and indigent.

He had two choices when he made his first appearance before a judge: Stay in jail waiting for laboratory tests to confirm the substance found on him was cocaine, or accept the prosecutor’s offer to plead guilty to a lesser charge, do his time in state jail and go home.

He chose the latter, received a credit of two days for every day served, and was released on Dec. 23, 2006. Six days later, Love was arrested and charged with robbing someone at the barrel of a BB gun, to which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in state prison.

In December 2012, the Houston Police Department crime lab finally got around to testing the substance taken from Love. It wasn’t cocaine. And it weighed less than 1 gram, which means that, even had he been carrying cocaine, Love would have faced a lesser charge in the first place.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office notified the trial court, which appointed attorney Tom Moran to file a writ of habeas corpus on Love’s behalf. It was granted in June last year. Love’s conviction was vacated, and he was declared innocent.

That bit of good news likely hasn’t reached Love – neither Moran nor an investigator from the district attorney’s office has been able to find him to tell him.

“He has no clue,” Moran said. “I have no idea where he’s at. He was out of Louisiana. I checked with the Louisiana prison system but couldn’t find him.”

Nationally, the registry reported that the number of exonerations in 2013 based on DNA testing continued to decline and non-DNA exonerations were on the rise.

Nearly a third of the exonerations last year involved cases in which no crime had occurred. Fifteen individuals were declared innocent of crimes to which they had pleaded guilty but did not commit.

Seven of those cases, including Love’s, were in Harris and Montgomery counties, and six of them involved convictions for drug possession that were overturned after crime lab analysis determined no drugs were involved.

All seven defendants were convicted after accepting plea bargains, which is how the vast majority of convictions in the country’s federal and state courts are obtained – 97 percent of federal convictions and 95 percent of state convictions.

Grits was on this last week. The registry in question is the National Registry of Exonerations, which is a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. You can see their report here; the embedded graph is from this page. The thing to keep in mind here is that Corey Love spent about three months in jail for something that wasn’t actually a crime. His is an extreme case, but there are a lot of people in our county jails like him, people who couldn’t make bail and wound up pleading to something so they could get their ordeal over with. We spend a lot of money on people like that, for no good purpose. We also spend a lot of money fighting to keep from re-examining the evidence in cases where strong doubt exists about the integrity of a conviction. There’s an awful lot more that we could be doing here, to either increase this number, or make it so that we don’t have to. The Atlantic has more.

Clearing the rape kit backlog is producing results

Very promising results.

Private forensic laboratories hired to clear the Houston Police Department’s untested DNA evidence – including a decades-old rape kit backlog – have identified potential offenders in a third of the cases where sufficient DNA samples were found, according to a HPD report.

[…]

Since the HPD lab resumed operations about six years ago, the city has spent millions to outsource DNA evidence testing to reduce the backlog, including $2.1 million in federal money in 2010 and 2011. That money was used, in part, to study why the kits had not been tested.

Last year’s multimillion-dollar clearance project to bulk outsource the cases came more than a year after HPD officials began an inventory of the sexual assault kits in their property room to determine how many had not been tested.

The two private labs have received 9,500 cases, and completed testing in nearly 6,200, according to the HPD report. Of those completed, sufficient evidence was found in 1,268, about a third of the 3,760 cases that have undergone HPD review to ensure the DNA evidence meets federal standards.

The remaining 2,492 cases reviewed did not find any results useful to investigators, the report states. Another 2,410 of the cases where testing was completed are still in HPD review.

See here and here for the background. If the same ratio of useful results holds true for the 2400 cases still being reviewed by HPD, then Houston will have had a higher success rate than some other cities when they finally cleared their backlogs. That doesn’t mean we should expect a thousand or more arrests – going by prior experience, we may see arrests in ten percent of these cases – but still, every single one will be good news. And of course, there are other possibilities.

Bob Wicoff, with the Harris County public defenders office, said the forensic testing could possibly result in exonerations of people wrongly convicted of a crime, or lead to the apprehension of guilty parties.

“There could be some exonerations out of this, but it’s too early to say,” said Wicoff, who represented two Harris County men who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned for rape. “That’s the whole point of doing the testing – its to identify unknown DNA.”

I’ll be surprised if there isn’t at least one exoneration out of all this. The experience we’ve seen elsewhere strongly suggests that one or more innocent men will be identified as a result of this work. That too is very good news, and it will be doubly so if the real rapist gets caught as well.

Who shot Bigfoot?

The correct answer is “no one”, since Bigfoot doesn’t exist and all that, but this guy claims to have done it.

Yeah, that’s not Bigfoot

Nearly a year ago a self-described professional Bigfoot hunter claimed to have shot and killed one of the creatures in San Antonio.

The alleged incident was featured in a documentary released last year that left more questions than answers.

[Last] Thursday Rick Dyer finally released pictures of the alleged beast’s body (see below).

“Bigfoot is 100 percent real — there’s no question about that,” Dyer said.

Dyer claims he shot and killed the mythical creature in a wooded area on the northwest side near Loop 1604 and Highway 151 in early September 2012.

Until Thursday Dyer never provided any proof beyond a grainy video clip he shot of the big beast outside his tent. More video was included in the documentary “Shooting Bigfoot,” but it failed to impress skeptics.

[…]

Despite a history of past Bigfoot hoaxes, Dyer insists he’s not fooling around this time.

“Bigfoot is not a tooth fairy — Bigfoot is real,” Dyer said. “The most important thing to me is being vindicated, letting people know that I am the best Bigfoot tracker in the world and it’s not just me saying it.”

Dyer plans to hold a news conference in the coming days, where he will show the full body and release the test results.

I’m sure he’ll allow an independent DNA analysis on his find. As the Bigfoot Evidence blog (the World’s Only 24/7 Bigfoot News Blog, because of course such a thing is needed) notes, Dyer most recently claimed to have shot a Bigfoot in Georgia in 2008, which he later admitted was a hoax. But this time he totally means it, y’all, even if his Bigfoot picture kind of resembles a dwarf from “Lord of the Rings”. Hey, you go to the media with the Bigfoot you have, not the Bigfoot you wish you had, am I right? Just show me the DNA test and we can settle this amicably.

We need a Conviction Integrity Unit in Harris County

From the DMN:

Craig Watkins

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has gained a national reputation for spearheading prisoner exonerations.

As he prepares to seek a third term, Watkins said Thursday he wants to expand on that role and add a few others. …

Watkins, a Democrat who was first elected in 2006, gained attention for using DNA tests to overturn convictions, and he said his office has a few more such cases pending.

When prosecutors finish with those next year, Watkins said, he wants his team to take another look at people convicted of arson and those accused of shaking their babies to death. Watkins said he has concerns about the science used in the prosecution of both types of cases.

“The science has changed. We need to revisit it,” Watkins said without elaborating.

That was via Grits for Breakfast, who adds the following:

With the passage of SB 344 by Whitmire/Turner, people convicted based on junk science now have a clear path to pursue habeas corpus writs to challenge their convictions, with old arson and shaken-baby cases high on the list of bad science likely to be challenged. It will be welcome news if Watkins takes leadership and gets out in front of those issues the way he did on DNA testing. The main difference will be that, until the Legislature changed the law in 2011 (SB 122 by Ellis), DAs could prevent DNA testing in old cases if they chose, just as Williamson County DA John Bradley thwarted testing in the Michael Morton case for many years simply by objecting. By contrast, the passage of SB 344 means junk science cases can now get back into court via habeas writs on their own, so Watkins and other District Attorneys will be forced to revisit them whether they want to or not.

Craig Watkins has done groundbreaking work in Dallas reviewing old convictions for which DNA evidence was available to allow for it. This was possible in part because Dallas County obsessively kept all their old case evidence, but it was Watkins who had the vision to look at old cases where the potential existed for a conviction that had been based on potentially shaky evidence and for which a more definitive answer could be established. Dozens of wrongly convicted men were freed as a result. DNA evidence only exists in a small percentage of cases, but there are other kinds of cases that can and should be reviewed, beginning with the “junk science” cases highlighted in SB344. It’s way past time for Harris County to conduct a systematic review of its own of old cases to see which of them deserve a closer look. We will be under the mandate of SB344 for some of these cases, but there’s no reason to limit ourselves, or to wait till the last minute. It’s beyond question that there are people currently in jail after being convicted in Harris County that are provably innocent of the crimes they were convicted for. In some cases, as with the just-released “San Antonio Four”, the crime in question never actually occurred. We already have to take action for some of these. Let’s commit to doing a thorough and exhaustive job of it. I look forward to hearing what Devon Anderson and Kim Ogg have to say about this.

Yeah, that’s still not Bigfoot

You can’t fool the SciGuy, y’all.

Steve Austin knows the truth

Bigfoot is smarter than humans. Bigfoot roams from the Arctic to the equator. Bigfoot has a sixth sense.

And most importantly, Bigfoot is very, very, very, very real.

That was the message Tuesday from group of lay researchers who made the rather audacious claims at a sparsely attended news conference at a Dallas recreation center.

“This is a serious business,” said a straight-faced Adrian Erickson, an investigator who spent five years tracking Bigfoot across the land and collecting evidence. “We don’t have a mountain of evidence, we have a mountain range of evidence.”

Billed as offering never-before-seen “Hi-def Bigfoot video,” the event drew a few local TV stations from Dallas as well as the Houston Chronicle’s science reporter, who has spent the last year probing the Bigfoot issue.

The video, alas, proved a disappointment.

The story mentions a character and some alleged Bigfoot DNA that we’ve encountered before. Needless to say, the evidence hasn’t gotten any better with subsequent retellings, and the video evidence is, well, less than overwhelming. Read the story, and the accompanying SciGuy blog post and see for yourself.

Interview with Anthony Robinson

Anthony Robinson

Anthony Robinson

If you’ve followed the news at all in Texas over the past decade or so you’re familiar with the large number of convicted inmates who have been subsequently freed after being exonerated by DNA evidence. That’s the story of District D candidate Anthony Robinson, who was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit in 1986, freed after serving ten years in jail, then proven innocent by DNA analysis in 2000. A former Army Cavalry Officer, Robinson earned two degrees while in prison, then got a law degree and became an attorney after being freed. He is a practicing attorney now, and as you might imagine has a strong interest in criminal justice matters. That was one of the things we talked about in our interview:

Anthony Robinson interview

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2013 Election page.

Rape kit backlog eliminated

More good news.

For the first time in its history, the Houston Police Department doesn’t have a backlog of rape kits that haven’t been tested.

The backlog, which at one point totalled 6,600 untested rape kits, was eliminated by sending the kits to outside labs, Chief Charles McClelland said.

“There is no backlog regarding DNA (evidence) and sexual assault kits,” said McClelland, adding that lab results are beginning to arrive back at the police department and criminal investigations will be updated if usable evidence is found.

The police department used federal grants and city funding to pay for processing the rape kits, in addition to testing evidence in other pending cases for possible DNA, the chief said. Rape kits are the informal term for biological samples as well as physical evidence gathered from victims of sexual assaults, which are later processed to see if they match the DNA of a suspect.

Police officials say they have the laboratory capacity, both inside HPD and in outside labs, to keep a backlog from developing.

It was back in March that Council unanimously approved a plan by Mayor Parker to allocate funds to clear the backlog by sending all of the kits to two outside labs. I presume what this story really means is that as of now all of the kits have been physically transferred from HPD’s possession to those two labs. The fact that HPD is now able to process all of the DNA evidence it collects in a timely manner so that no new backlogs develop is at least as big a deal as the clearing of the backlog that had existed for so many years.

Past critics of the department’s forensic services, including the city’s largest police union, say they expect the crime lab not to ever lag behind again.

“Under this chief and mayor, it better be sustainable because they made it very clear to the (assistant) chief who took over that position that it is not going to happen again,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officer’s Union. “I’m very confident, under this administration, that there won’t be a backlog. That is something that has to happen – you can’t get behind.”

Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said that HPD investigators receive about 1,000 new sexual assault cases each year, and these cases are also being sent to a pair of outside laboratories. Other criminal cases needing forensic testing are being processed in the HPD lab.

This is a big deal and an accomplishment of which Mayor Parker should be justifiably proud. It will make the transition to the new crime lab structure much smoother, and it means that the new crime lab can be more aggressive about pursuing and analyzing DNA evidence in property crime cases. All in all, a very good day for the city.

What’s the difference between a rock and a fossilized Bigfoot skull?

Less than you might think, apparently.

Steve Austin knows the truth

Todd May, of Ogden, dropped by the offices of the Standard-Examiner to see if someone would be interested in a story about a fairly impressive fossil find. After showing off a couple of digital photos, May offered six even more compelling words — “Do you want to see it?” — followed by the motherlode of sentences: “It’s out in the trunk of my car.”

In the trunk of your car? Do I want to see it? Does Bigfoot make in the woods?

May proceeded out to his car, where he popped the hatchback on his Nissan 300 ZX. Peeling back an American flag draped across the cargo area of the vehicle, he hefted a black piece of luggage that resembled an oversized bowling-ball bag, lowering it to the asphalt of the parking lot with a clunk. He struggled to pull a noggin-sized, seemingly ordinary rock out of the bag, held it up and turned it over.

A face.

The rock looks vaguely like a smaller version of one of those Easter Island heads. Pronounced forehead. Large, flattened nose. What could only be described as a chiseled chin and jaw line.

It’s been about six weeks since May found the rock near the mouth of Ogden Canyon.

“I was looking for some fossils,” the 49-year-old “semi-retired” private investigator explains, “and I was kind of drawn to something in the ground.”

It was a rock, sticking up out of the dirt.

“So I went and dug it out, and you couldn’t tell what it was ’cause the head was face down; all you could see was the back of it,” he said. “But when I dug it out you could see the face, perfect.”

May believes his weighty prize — it tips the scales at 70 pounds — is a fossilized Bigfoot skull. What compels him to make such a claim? Because he says he has seen a couple of the non-fossilized, live skulls — attached to their monstrous, hairy bodies — in recent years.

[…]

The Standard-Examiner sent a photo of the rock to several paleontologists for an initial opinion on May’s find.

In an email interview, paleontologist Kenneth Carpenter said what May found is interesting, but it definitely is not a fossilized skull.

“I’ll admit that it is the most head-like rock I have seen,” said Carpenter, director and curator of paleontology at Utah State University Eastern’s Prehistoric Museum in Price. “However, there is no doubt that the object is a natural phenomenon. Basically, it is just the odd way the rock has weathered.”

Carpenter said there are several key features of a real skull that are missing — eye socket, nose opening, and teeth among them.

“The object looks more like a head than a skull,” Carpenter wrote. “When a human head starts to decompose, the first areas to go are those soft tissue high in water, namely the eyes. Thus, even if the eyelids are closed, the eye socket is seen as a collapse of the eyelid into the socket. Scavengers, including coyotes, rodents, insects, etc., feed on tissue. For them it is an easy meal. That is why murder corpses in the outdoors are little more than bones.”

Carpenter also said the structure of the material suggests it’s a rock.

“If a piece is knocked off, you’ll find that it is rock all the way through,” he said. “Bone when it fossilizes still retains its structure, even at the microscopic level. … IF this were a fossilized skull, then knocking a chip off should reveal bone structure inside.”

Brooks B. Britt, paleontologist at Brigham Young University in Provo, says he gets these sorts of calls regularly.

“This happens all the time,” he said in a telephone interview. Rarely, however, do such leads result in an actual fossil.

“I’ve been doing this since I first started at BYU, and only once did something turn out to be worthwhile,” he said.

Most of the time, Britt says, it’s just a rock that looks like something interesting. He has seen people bring in rocks shaped like hearts, kidneys, fingers, eggs — all sorts of anatomical parts.

“It’s just the way the rock weathered naturally,” he said.

Britt says despite explaining this to the finders, he can never convince them otherwise.

“They just won’t listen to anybody,” Britt said. “He’s always going to believe it.”

Yes, I suppose he is. All I know is that you can’t get DNA from a rock. And speaking of DNA, SciGuy updates us on that geneticist from Nacogdoches who claimed to have Bigfoot DNA:

I agreed to be an intermediary between [geneticist and purported Bigfoot DNA owner Melba] Ketchum and a highly reputable geneticist in Texas, whom I trusted and knew personally. I also knew that this geneticist was first and foremost a scientist, and if there was even a 1 percent chance the Bigfoot evidence was real, he’d want check out the story. I asked, and he was willing to approach the evidence with an open mind.

(Why am I maintaining my source’s anonymity? Because some of his peers would question his engagement on such a topic, believing it unworthy of valuable research time. But make no mistake, he is a top-notch scientist at the top of his field.)

The deal was this: I would hold off writing anything until this geneticist had his lab test the DNA samples obtained by Ketchum that were purportedly a novel and non-human species. If the evidence backed up Ketchum’s claims, I had a blockbuster story. My geneticist source would have a hand in making the scientific discovery of the decade, or perhaps the century. Ketchum would be vindicated.

In short, we would all have been winners.

Alas, I met my geneticist friend this past week and I asked about the Bigfoot DNA. It was, he told me, a mix of opossum and other species. No find of the century.

Alas indeed. Apparently, Dr. Ketcham didn’t care for this result, but that’s the way it goes when you use actual science. Better luck next time, Doc.

Where does the crime lab go from here?

Now that there’s a plan in place to clear the longstanding crime lab backlog, the question is what should we expect from the crime lab going forward?

Scott Hochberg

“It’s sort of hard to build a house when you’re trying to dig yourself out of a hole,” said Scott Hochberg, chairman of the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corp., a nine-member independent-appointed board formed by Mayor Annise Parker last year to take over the city’s forensic operations from Houston Police Department. “So getting back to ground level is a good place to start.”

Police officials are optimistic that by the time backlog testing is completed, in an estimated 14 months, control of the city’s forensic testing will largely fall under LGC authority, rather than HPD. Whether more property crimes – which accounted for just 3 percent of evidence the crime lab tested over the last two years – will be included will likely be the decision of the board, said HPD Executive Assistant Chief Timothy Oettmeier.

“We’d like to be in a position to look at the LGC and say ‘You know what, because we got rid of this humongous backlog that maybe we’ve got enough capacity to start processing some of that stuff,’ ” said Oettmeier, emphasizing that HPD will only play a supporting role for recommendations in crime lab functions once the LGC takes over.

[…]

The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, which serves 37 area law enforcement agencies, has been testing touch DNA in property crimes cases. When testing for touch DNA, the forensics institute has a 70 to 75 percent success rate for matches to crime suspects in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, a national database used to store DNA profiles, said agency spokeswoman Tricia Bentley.

Oettmeier said collection of touch DNA is contingent upon the number of crime scene unit personnel on staff to gather evidence. He said crime evidence collection is another part of forensics that HPD would like to hand over to crime lab.

“It’s unfortunate that we aren’t farther along in this area than we should be,” Oettmeier said. “But we’ve been carrying around this anchor with all of these problems for so long that we finally have a break and we’re going to take advantage of that.”

See here and here for more about the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corporation (LGC). I too would like to see more done with property crime cases, including “touch DNA” testing. I also think moving crime evidence collection under the auspices of the LGC and away from HPD makes sense. What would you add to this that isn’t in the story?

What to expect from clearing the rape kit backlog

As you know, two weeks ago Mayor Parker announced that the city would allocate funds to clear the backlog of rape kits, thus bringing to a conclusions one of the city’s longest-standing issues. City Council has now unanimously approved the plan, in which out of state labs will provide the analyses. What was fascinating to me about this was the statistics cited at the end of the story:

Council members C.O. Bradford and Helena Brown raised concerns about the cost of bringing experts in from Utah and Virginia to testify, should cases resulting from testing the backlog go to trial.

Parker said the $4.4 million should cover all needed testimony, including that related to the active cases being outsourced, adding the city has farmed out DNA testing and flown experts here to testify for years. Even if the initial amount falls short, she said, there are several million dollars left in the budget set aside to tackle the backlog.

HPD Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said both labs awarded contracts Wednesday have cleared other jurisdictions’ backlogs, and reported that expert testimony was required in fewer than 1 percent of such cases. Slinkard said cases also may be reopened and adjudicated without a need for expert testimony.

Parker said she expects few local cases to be affected by the testing of the backlog, because many have long since been closed or adjudicated, whether because other evidence was sufficient to bring charges, the victim was not willing to prosecute, or other such factors. The hit rate was “incredibly low,” she said, when other cities tackled their own backlogs.

New York City exonerated one defendant after working through its 16,000-kit backlog, first identified in 1999. As of 2009, the testing had produced 2,000 hits matching DNA profiles in law enforcement databases and 200 investigations, arrests or prosecutions, according to the Joyful Heart Foundation, which works to raise awareness of sexual and domestic violence.

Los Angeles’ backlog of 6,132 rape kits, made public in 2008, produced about 1,000 hits in law enforcement databases, according to the Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles police officials in 2011 estimated the number of arrests generated by the backlog testing in the “dozens.”

First, I had no idea there had been such backlogs in other cities, though I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised by that. Second, I had no idea that so few of the kits led to some kind of action. I don’t know what I should have expected, but whatever that is, it wasn’t this. To be clear, this is a worthwhile and absolutely necessary thing to do regardless, and the Council’s unanimous vote of approval shows the support for doing this. HPD also has a bunch of DNA samples from property crime cases to process, and getting all of this done sets the stage for better and more timely handling of this evidence going forward. I just thought this was interesting.

Bigfoot DNA update

I apologize for being so remiss in reporting on this.

Steve Austin knows the truth

As you may recall last November there was a bit of a to-do about a Texas geneticist from Nacogdoches, Melba Ketchum, who claimed to have sequenced DNA from a Bigfoot. That’s quite a feat considering this a creature that does not exist in the real world.

At the time I reported on a number of significant issues with the claims Ketchum was making.

Now she has finally found a scientific journal to publish her manuscript — a journal, DeNovo, that happened to not exist until this week.

Anyway, here’s the paper’s abstract:

One hundred eleven samples of blood, tissue, hair, and other types of specimens were studied, characterized and hypothesized to be obtained from elusive hominins in North America commonly referred to as Sasquatch. DNA was extracted and purified from a subset of these samples that survived rigorous screening for wildlife species identification. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequencing, specific genetic loci sequencing, forensic short tandem repeat (STR) testing, whole genome single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) bead array analysis, and next generation whole genome sequencing were conducted on purported Sasquatch DNA samples gathered from various locations in North America. Additionally, histopathologic and electron microscopic examination were performed on a large tissue sample. vel non-human DNA.

And here’s the news release announcing the paper’s publication. It all sounds science-y and stuff, doesn’t it?

Too bad it’s almost certainly Bigfoot scat. The big question is why Ketchum would pick this journal to publish findings that if true would be monumental. It would be the scientific discovery of the decade, at least.

And she picks a brand-new journal? Smells a little fishy, no?

Eric “SciGuy” Berger subsequently received a copy of the paper and solicited some feedback from geneticists, who reacted about as you’d expect they would. At this point it’s just a matter of a credible person testing the samples and letting us know what they’re really from. But until then, now you know where things stand.

Clearing the rape kit backlog

Some excellent news from the Mayor’s office.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker and the Houston Police Department today announced details of a plan that will eliminate the backlog of untested sexual assault kits (SAK). Under the plan, which will be formally considered by Houston City Council next week, the untested kits will be sent to two outside labs for testing. It is anticipated the work will be completed in 12-14 months and cost the city $4.4 million, which will be covered with grant funding already awarded to HPD and dollars set aside for this purpose by City Council in the city’s current budget.

“Today is an important day for rape victims and the city as a whole,” said Mayor Parker. “With this plan we will finally be able to say the backlog is gone. The problem was years in the making and we’ve been working to solve it since I became mayor. It has been a struggle to deal with during a period of extremely difficult economic times, but we remained determined. I am committed to it never happening again.”

HPD is recommending the contract be awarded to Bode Technology Group, Inc. and Sorenson Forensics, LLC. They were selected through a competitive process. Both are recognized leaders in the field and both have worked on other large backlog projects in various places, including New York, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. Due to the volume of work, the city is able to maximize the use of a low, fixed-price contract.

“This plan will eliminate the backlog of SAKs and other DNA cases entirely,” said Houston Forensic Science LGC Chair Scott Hochberg. “This will allow the existing crime lab to focus on current casework and give the LGC a clean start and the ability to focus on other issues as it works to establish an entirely independent city crime lab.”

“Department personnel have worked diligently on this project and will be implementing an aggressive plan to complete it in an effective and efficient manner,” said Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland. “I am extremely confident this will not be an issue in the future. I am also very proud of all the men and women who have helped us reach this milestone.”

The contract will include the following:

  • Testing of 6,663 stored SAKs
  • Testing of 1,450 active SAKs
  • Testing of 1,000 SAKs HPD anticipates receiving in the next year
  • Testing of 1,020 other non-SAK cases

The proposed contract with Bode Technology Group and Sorenson Forensics is expected to be on the February 20 City Council agenda. Approval by City Council would clear the way for transfer of all SAKs and other DNA cases to the two firms for the start of testing.

The backlog of these rape kits is a longstanding scandal, and clearing it would be a major accomplishment. Amazing the positive things that can get done when there’s money in the budget, isn’t there? The Chron story adds a few more details, including the fact that clearing the backlog would mean that DNA testing for property crime cases can proceed; that’s what the “1,020 other non-SAK cases” item above refers to.

The main question I have in reading this is whether the money came from the $5 per customer strip club fee that Council adopted last June. I wouldn’t think so, for two reasons. One, CM Ellen Cohen, who proposed the fee as a way to help pay for the rape kit backlog, estimated it would collect between one and three million dollars per year. Two point two million in six months seems like an awful lot. More to the point, I’m not sure the fee is even being collected yet, or if it is if its revenue is available for the city to use since the strip clubs filed a lawsuit over the fee in October. The state held the revenues collected from their fee in escrow for years while that litigation was being resolved. In any event, I posed the question to the Mayor’s office, also asking if the fee would still be needed now that the backlog was on its way to being resolved, and got the following response:

While the litigation is pending, the clubs are not paying the fee. The $2.2 million from the General Fund is part of $5 million City Council included in the current city budget last June for testing and to help with start up of the independent crime lab. It is not from the fee. There is no implication that the fee will no longer be needed. It just may not be needed for this purpose.

So there you have it. Speaking of the lawsuit, and I want to emphasize that this is my own speculation here, it seems to me that the resolution of the backlog would be a useful pretext for settling that litigation if both parties were so inclined. If the backlog is cleared then the fee is no longer needed, right? The city could agree to quit collecting it, and then modulo any haggling the clubs might want to do over fees that had already been collected, that would be all there is to it. Like I said, entirely my own speculation. Hair Balls has more.

Court of inquiry concludes

The court of inquiry that was examining the behavior of then-prosecutor Ken Anderson has concluded with Anderson’s testimony in his defense. Having seen what he had to say for himself, I find myself not terribly sympathetic to him or his situation.

At times fighting back tears, Anderson called Morton’s case his “worst nightmare” but defended his conduct.

“We had a lot to be proud of, we still do,” Anderson said, his voice wavering. Then, pounding on the witness stand, he continued: “The office I ran was professional, it was competent. We did things right. We got it right as much as we humanly could.”

After testimony ended, [Judge Louis] Sturns said it will be several weeks before the parties reconvene. He did not say whether he will issue a ruling then.

[…]

Anderson, who testified Friday that he’s spent his life savings “defending myself against accusations that I think we all know are false,” claimed the judge only asked for a small portion of the police notes — and he complied.

Asked if there was any weight to accusations he hid evidence, Anderson responded that he’d reviewed the case “until I’m blue in the face. There is nothing in that record that even remotely says that.”

He was later shown a portion of the trial transcript where the judge asked: “Mr. Anderson, do you have anything that is favorable to the accused?” Anderson replied that he did not.

[…]

Anderson said all evidence could be seen differently with the benefit of hindsight. He also accused Hardin of wanting to “see me handcuffed and taken to jail” on matters “that are so bogus it’s unreal.”

Given the chance to address Morton directly, Anderson said he had been gracious since his exoneration and added, “I’ve apologized that the system screwed up and it obviously screwed up.”

“I’ve been beating myself up on what else I could have been done different,” Anderson concluded, “and I frankly don’t know.”

The Trib has a fuller version of that money quote: “I had to spend the money to hire lawyers. And I worked my entire life and now they have it,” he said. I have to say, you’d think a guy who spent a decade or more as a District Attorney would be familiar with the cost of competent defense attorneys. I’m sure some of the people he’s prosecuted could bring him up to speed on that. But be that as it may, he sure is weirdly disconnected from his role in this. I mean, “the system screwed up”? Last I checked, the District Attorney is a pretty integral part of the system. I get that he’s probably limited in what he ought to say during this proceeding, but an “I’m sorry” would have been nice.

Eye on Williamson sums it up nicely.

In watching all of this over the last year and a half or so, I’m not positive that Anderson technically broke any law. But I’m damn near positive there were moral and ethical lapses. And that former Sheriff Boutwell and Anderson knew, deep down in their souls, that Morton was guilty and were bound and determined to put him in jail – no matter what the evidence said. Their egos got in the way of reality. And that later on John Bradley was willing to keep him there for the same egotistical reasons. And lends credence to the many unfair justice stories, that are common place for anyone who has lived in Williamson County for an extended period of time.

Hopefully this will be a cautionary tale for all prosecutors that they are not the judge and jury. That they should allow everyone to look at all the evidence in a case – all the way through the appeals process – to make sure they’re not putting innocent people in jail for crimes they didn’t commit. Because, as this shows, when an innocent person goes to jail it not only ruins their life, but when the truth comes out it ruins the lives, and legacy, of those that put the innocent person in jail as well.

If there’s one other lesson that I hope everyone learns from this, it’s that if a convicted murderer requests that some old piece of evidence be tested for DNA, go ahead and let it be tested. What can it hurt? If he’s as guilty as you believe him to be, the DNA test will vindicate you. And if it proves him right and you wrong, isn’t it better to know, and to not be the villain that tried to keep the truth from coming out? Don’t be like John Bradley, that’s what I’m saying. Texas Monthly has more.

The court of inquiry

Going on this week is a court of inquiry in the matter of Williamson County Judge Ken Anderson, who was the District Attorney that won a conviction against Michael Morton for the murder of his wife, Christine, which as we know has since been overturned after DNA evidence cleared him and implicated another man. The court of inquiry is to evaluate the claims made by Morton’s attorneys that Anderson deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence, which may lead to criminal charges being filed against Anderson if that allegation is found to have merit. The Statesman and the Trib have all the background on this unusual proceeding, and for everything you need to know about the Morton case, read the two-part Texas Monthly story (and be prepared to have your heart broken by it) as well as Scott Henson’s interview with author Pam Colloff. Finally, you can follow the inquiry itself at the Trib’s liveblog.

Whatever else comes out of this inquiry, what I would like to see happen is a re-evaluation of how we think about those who fight crime. From the Trib story:

Anderson, who declined through his lawyer to be interviewed for this story, has contested allegations of wrongdoing and has said that he is sick over the wrongful conviction. And those in the Central Texas city of Georgetown, who have known Anderson over the years, say they can’t believe that the church-going Boy Scout troop leader — who tried to steer young people who veered into his courtroom onto a productive path — could do the unethical things he’s accused of doing. Even some defense lawyers who sparred with Anderson in the courtroom say allegations that he behaved underhandedly are hard to fathom.

“I never thought of him as acting unethically or in violation of the rules,” said veteran defense lawyer Roy Minton. “I did think of him as being very strong and hard on crime, but that was the history of that county.”

In Georgetown’s small courthouse circles, there are different ideas about who may have contributed to the injustice that befell Morton.

Williamson County’s legendary Sheriff Jim Boutwell, a tall, thin cowboy of a lawman who was rarely without his white Stetson, cowboy boots and handcuff tie clip, helped forge the county’s tough-on-crime history.

A former Texas Ranger, Boutwell became famous in 1966 when Charles Whitman went to the top of the University of Texas tower with three rifles and a sawed-off shotgun and fired at students and faculty. Boutwell flew an airplane over the campus, distracting Whitman with gunfire long enough for officers on the ground to take him down. Boutwell cemented his reputation in 1983 when he and a task force of officers extracted hundreds of murder confessions from Henry Lee Lucas. After Lucas was sentenced to death, then–Attorney General Jim Mattox issued a report that dismantled many of the confessions and concluded that the drifter wasn’t even in the same state when some of the killings were committed. In 2001 — eight years after Boutwell died of cancer — then-Gov. George W. Bush commuted Lucas’ death sentence to life in prison.

There’s no question that the path to Michael Morton’s conviction was paved by Sheriff Boutwell’s myopic, almost comically flawed investigation of the case. And whether Anderson was criminally negligent or not, there’s no question that exculpatory evidence was not made available to the defense. By their actions, geared towards convicting Michael Morton, Boutwell and Anderson are responsible for at least one other murder apparently committed by Mark Alan Norwood, who now stands accused of Christine Morton’s death. To me, anyone who by their actions could allow this to happen doesn’t get to be “hard and strong on crime”. Too many people who have that reputation – and this certainly includes now-former Williamson County DA John Bradley, who lost his primary race last year after waging and finally conceding a long battle to keep Michael Morton from doing the DNA test that led to his exoneration – who are more accurately described as being “tough on defendants” or “tough on suspects”. The two are not the same, a lesson I hope is finally starting to sink in. Maybe Mark Alan Norwood would not have been caught in time to prevent him from killing Debra Baker in 1988, but there’s no doubt that Boutwell and Anderson’s zealous pursuit of Michael Morton cost him 25 years of his life, for no good purpose. Had they been as committed to the truth and to justice with the same fervor, the world would be a better place today. It’s time for us to rethink what it means to be “tough on crime”, because the way we use that phrase now, it’s not a virtue.

In praise of CODIS

We’re catching more crooks thanks to DNA. Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, but it’s always nice to have some numbers.

I want one of these

The number of Texas crimes solved after a suspect’s DNA matched with offenders’ DNA samples stored in the national repository known as CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) recently passed the 10,000th mark.

The state averaged only about 200 matches a year during the first five years after the database was created in 1996. That number leaped to an average 1,000 hits a year for the next 10 years. In just the last 11 months, the number of matches has nearly doubled to 1,943, records show.

[…]

Harris County now processes an average of 400 cases a month, compared to about a dozen cases in the past, said the lab’s director, Dr. Roger Kahn, explaining how automation has replaced the tedious repetitive tasks once done by human hands.

The number of samples of offenders’ DNA stored in Texas’ database also has mushroomed to more than 660,000. Texas law requires all registered sex offenders, felons sent to prison or placed on community supervision, and juveniles committed to Texas’ juvenile justice system to submit a DNA specimen.

“The more samples in the pool, the greater opportunity for a match,” said Skylor Hearn, who oversees the crime lab that manages the state’s database. “There is a degree of recidivism in (the) criminal world, and we’re catching up to them.”

At the same time, the ability to make a match is increasing because DNA profiles can be developed from material that’s often invisible to the eye.

“Originally, we required a blood stain the size of quarter. Now it’s not visible. A dandruff flake is enough; just touching something leaves behind cells that can be enough. The systems are much more sensitive,” Kahn said.

Harris County also has a special “CSI-style” seven-member team that it can dispatch to collect potential DNA from sensitive murder scenes.

That last bit is somewhat of a commercial for the Harris County crime lab, which as you know is getting a new facility soon, but what the heck. Keep up the good work, y’all.

Using DNA analysis is often associated with innocence and exoneration these days, and for good reason. It’s important to remember that every time DNA absolves someone who had been convicted of a crime, it also points a finger at the real perpetrator. For every innocent person in jail, there is some number of guilty people who aren’t in jail. (Some may be in jail for other reasons, or they may be dead, or as with some questionable arson cases, there may have been no crime in the first place.) None of those exonerations, and subsequent arrests of the real criminals, would have been possible if the original DNA evidence had been destroyed upon conviction, as prosecutors like now-former Williamson County DA John Bradley have advocated. If he had gotten his way in the Michael Morton case, not only would Morton still be incarcerated, but a man who is now also suspected in the murder of at least one other woman would still be walking free. Think about that. And while you do, be sure to read Pam Colloff’s outstanding two-part story in the November and December editions of Texas Monthly about the Michael Morton saga. If you don’t have a tear in your eye, and a belly full of outrage, by the ending, you should consider talking to your doctor. See also Grits’ interview with Colloff for more.

Recreating a Galapagos tortoise?

How amazing would this be?

Lonesome George

Lonesome George, the late reptile prince of the Galapagos Islands, may be dead, but scientists now say he may not be the last giant tortoise of his species after all.

Researchers say they may be able to resurrect the Pinta Island subspecies by launching a cross-breeding program with 17 other tortoises found to contain genetic material similar to that of Lonesome George, who died June 24 at the Pacific Ocean archipelago off Ecuador’s coast after repeated failed efforts to reproduce.

Edwin Naula, director of the Galapagos National Park, said in a telephone interview on Thursday that the probability is high it can be accomplished.

“It would be the first time that a species was recovered after having been declared extinct,” Naula said.

But it won’t happen overnight.

“This is going to take about 100 to 150 years,” Naula added.

Scientists took DNA samples from 1,600 tortoises on Wolf volcano, and found the Pinta variety in 17, though their overall genetic makeup varied.

Through cross-breeding, “100 percent pure species” can be achieved, said Naula, a biologist.

None of us will live to see it, of course, so we’ll have to take their word for it. This would be a heck of an achievement if it actually happens. I don’t have any point to make, I just thought this was cool.

So you say you have Bigfoot DNA

I have one thing to say about this.

Steve Austin knows the truth

A team of scientists can verify that their 5-year long DNA study, currently under peer-review, confirms the existence of a novel hominin hybrid species, commonly called “Bigfoot” or “Sasquatch,” living in North America. Researchers’ extensive DNA sequencing suggests that the legendary Sasquatch is a human relative that arose approximately 15,000 years ago as a hybrid cross of modern Homo sapiens with an unknown primate species.

The study was conducted by a team of experts in genetics, forensics, imaging and pathology, led by Dr. Melba S. Ketchum of Nacogdoches, TX. In response to recent interest in the study, Dr. Ketchum can confirm that her team has sequenced 3 complete Sasquatch nuclear genomes and determined the species is a human hybrid:

“Our study has sequenced 20 whole mitochondrial genomes and utilized next generation sequencing to obtain 3 whole nuclear genomes from purported Sasquatch samples. The genome sequencing shows that Sasquatch mtDNA is identical to modern Homo sapiens, but Sasquatch nuDNA is a novel, unknown hominin related to Homo sapiens and other primate species. Our data indicate that the North American Sasquatch is a hybrid species, the result of males of an unknown hominin species crossing with female Homo sapiens.

Hominins are members of the taxonomic grouping Hominini, which includes all members of the genus Homo. Genetic testing has already ruled out Homo neanderthalis and the Denisova hominin as contributors to Sasquatch mtDNA or nuDNA. “The male progenitor that contributed the unknown sequence to this hybrid is unique as its DNA is more distantly removed from humans than other recently discovered hominins like the Denisovan individual,” explains Ketchum.

“Sasquatch nuclear DNA is incredibly novel and not at all what we had expected. While it has human nuclear DNA within its genome, there are also distinctly non-human, non-archaic hominin, and non-ape sequences. We describe it as a mosaic of human and novel non-human sequence. Further study is needed and is ongoing to better characterize and understand Sasquatch nuclear DNA.”

If they really have Bigfoot DNA – and if you read the whole press release, at the bottom it says “Full details of the study will be presented in the near future when the study manuscript publishes”, so we’re just taking their word for it, as if there were any doubt about that – then send it to Oxford and let the boffins over there have a go at it. If you’ve really got what you say you’ve got, then a Nobel prize is surely in your future. If not, well, no one should be surprised. Via SciGuy, who treats the announcement with all due respect. For more on why we already do know the truth about Bigfoot, see this Slate article, and for more on the reactions to this particular claim, see TM Daily Post.