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Harris County Medical Examiner

Meet the Houston Regional Forensic Science Center

Mayor Parker has revealed her vision for an independent regional crime lab.

Mayor Annise Parker proposed on Wednesday taking control of the city’s crime lab away from the police department and handing it to an independent seven-member board with expertise in forensic science and fiscal management.

“I clearly prefer to have our forensics sciences not under the influence of police, prosecution or politics,” Parker said.

There are no details yet on where the crime lab would be located or how to come up with what a written report identified as the “significant” start-up costs for a new crime lab.

[…]

Parker proposes forming a local government corporation — a hybrid of sorts between a non-profit organization and a government agency — that would become the new employer of 188 police and civilian employees who currently work for the police department’s crime lab. The city envisions that the seven-member board would include a representative from the Innocence Project, the organization that uses DNA testing to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

Parker herself would appoint the board members. Council would confirm them.

City Attorney David Feldman explained that such a board, because members could only be removed for wrongdoing, would be more independent than the county medical examiner, who is an at-will employee of Commissioners Court.

The LGC is the key to understanding the proposal, as it is the reason why the lab would be independent in a way that the county’s lab would not, at least as the Mayor sees it. The Chron story from before the announcement discusses that point.

Criminal justice advocates praised Parker’s push for independence.

“We definitely see it as a much-needed step to ensuring that people are not wrongfully convicted,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, which advocates for human and civil rights and protecting public safety. “Independence is key.”

The city and county have disagreed on what independence means. County officials insist that although Commissioners Court has the power to appoint the director of its Institute for Forensic Sciences and to set its budget, the operation runs independently of the sheriff and the district attorney. Parker has said that to hand over the city’s crime lab work to the county “simply substitutes one government master for another government master.”

[…]

The mayor’s plan does not preclude merging operations with the county, [spokesperson Janice] Evans said.

“In fact, we hope we can reach agreement on something that would include more entities than the city,” she said. The local government corporation board Parker envisions would have the power to broker deals with other jurisdictions.

County Judge Ed Emmett said that although the city and county are on separate tracks right now, Parker’s proposal ultimately could make it easier for the two governments to come together.

“By having the LGC, it opens up more options for how the city can approach forensic science, including partnering with the Institute of Forensic Sciences,” Emmett said.

That’s what most people would surely like to see happen. It makes the most sense in terms of cost and complexity. We’ll see what happens as more of the details get filled in. According to the post-presentation story, the proposal won’t come up for a vote before next month, so there’s time for things to be tweaked. You can see the Mayor’s presentation here. Backstory on the city and county’s efforts so far can be found here, here, here, here, and here. Stace has more.

County approves building new forensics lab

The Institute of Forensic Sciences is getting a new home.

I want one of these

Commissioners Court on Tuesday gave staff the go-ahead to finalize a land deal with the Texas Medical Center that would give the county 2.79 acres at the northeast corner of Old Spanish Trail and Bertner.

The deal would require construction to begin on the new nine-story Institute of Forensic Sciences facility within two years; Art Storey, the county’s director of public infrastructure, said he plans to start in December 2013.

“Harris County is running out of its own capacity,” said District Attorney Pat Lykos. who urged the court to move forward. “It’s absolutely essential to the administration of justice that Commissioners Court did what they did today,” the district attorney declared.

[…]

The county’s new facility will handle autopsies and evidence testing. A separate county facility for DNA testing is expected to open elsewhere in the Medical Center, at 2450 Holcombe, this year.

See here for some background. This has been referred to as a “regional” crime lab, but so far the county and the city are not yet on the same page; in recent weeks, Mayor Parker has spoken about the possibility of going a different direction than the county. This story doesn’t shed any new light on that.

County officials on Tuesday said they hope the city eventually will join them, though all stressed the county lab must expand to meet growing demand, regardless of the city’s plan.

“There’s been this discussion of yet another regional crime lab, and we already have the capability of doing that,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

[…]

“As Mayor Parker stated in her inaugural address, her goal is to create an independent crime lab that can handle all of the city’s forensic needs,” said Parker spokeswoman Jessica Michan. “We’ll continue our dialogue with Harris County to, hopefully, achieve that goal together.”

There are common interests, but as yet not a common vision. Maybe by the time this thing is built we’ll have it all figured out.

Harris County moves forward with new crime lab

Harris County is moving forward with plans to create what is being called a regional crime lab.

At a meeting Tuesday, commissioners approved a plan that would lead the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences into becoming a regional crime lab.

The long-term plan is for the institute, formerly the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office, to move into a new building. County officials have asked the city to share costs for the facility if the Houston Police Department’s forensic operations are turned over to the new lab. The HPD crime lab has a backlog of thousands of sexual assault cases waiting for DNA testing.

The county’s plan for a regional lab begins with a pilot program that would allow the institute to take on some DNA cases from the HPD’s crime lab. Commissioners on Tuesday gave the pilot program the green light.

If approved by the city, the program could lead to the institute taking on HPD’s full case load and becoming a regional crime laboratory.

[…]

Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Director Art Storey told commissioners Tuesday that it has been frustrating waiting for the city to commit to sharing costs for the new facility.

He said the county should begin planning for the expanded facility, which would be built with $80 million in bond funds approved by voters in 2007, even without the city’s agreement to help fund it.

Reading this story, and especially the typically jerkish Steve Radack comment at the end, gave me the impression that the county was somehow stuck waiting for the city to take action before it could move forward. That isn’t the case, however. I called Art Storey to ask him if the city and the county had had any conversations about sharing operational expenses for this facility before the bond referendum of 2007. He couldn’t give me a definitive answer on that, as his involvement came primarily after the referendum, but he did give me a lot of information about where things stand and where they will likely go. From his perspective, the city has made its position clear (as noted in the story, a recent letter signed by Andy Icken indicated the city would like to participate but is currently constrained by its budget; you might have heard a little something about that), and Storey wanted the county to get moving now because most of the key stakeholders – the Medical Examiner, the District Attorney, and the bulk of the courts – are under the county’s purview and they need this to get going. The city’s involvement can be worked out later, he told me, after the county has set up shop in some space that will be leased in the Medical Center area. The bottom line was that Storey wanted the county to move forward, which is what they have now done. He wasn’t worried about where the city was, and didn’t want the county to be hung up on that.

Storey also answered another question I had, which was how exactly “regional” was being defined here. Did this allow for the possibility of other law enforcement agencies, from other counties, using this facility? After emphasizing the word “possibility”, Storey said that once the Institute was up and running and demonstrated what it could do, other entities might inquire about making use of it, and if they did they would be accommodated as resources allowed. He cited the example of TransStar as something whose purpose expanded once it got going. Having said that, he made it clear that what made the most sense was for the two biggest players – Houston and Harris County – to fund and be served by it. The vote by Commissioners Court was a key step in that direction. My thanks to Art Storey for clarifying this for me.

The forensics backlog

I was going to blog about this Chron story regarding a backlog in fingerprint analyses for the HPD Crime Lab, but Grits said most of what I was going to say, so just go read him. The key, I think, is this:

[W]hether the lab is independent or part of the police department, the problem of chronic backlogs stems from a shortage of resources – it’s going to cost Houston a lot more money to fix this problem, either way, than they’re spending on forensics now. The only other option is to choose not to devote forensic resources to certain categories of offenses, and if backlogs become too onerous, to expand those categories.

I feel like what’s been left unsaid in the discussion about creating regional and/or independent crime labs is the cost, and who pays for it. Don’t get me wrong, I continue to think these are good ideas, but only if we do them right. A half-assed, underfunded independent crime will be no improvement over what we have now. DA Lykos suggests in the article that the Harris County Medical Examiner’s office is a possible solution. Maybe she’s right; it can’t hurt to study the idea, in any event. We need to look at these current problems as opportunities to find a better way to do what we’re doing now, and to get commitments to pay for them, so we won’t be faced with fixing the same problems again in another few years.

Regional crime lab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three things:

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

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

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

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

More on Larry Swearingen

I’ve blogged before about Larry Swearingen, who is on death row and is scheduled for execution on January 27 even though forensic evidence clearly demonstrates his innocence of the murder of Melissa Trotter. Multiple experts, including the Harris County medical examiner who originally testified against him at his trial, now say that Trotter’s body was dumped while Swearingen was sitting in a jail cell. Yet the Court of Criminal Appeals, that bastion of injustice and illogic, has refused to order a new trial. It’s appalling, and is going to be a huge, avoidable tragedy if nothing happens to prevent it.

Now the Chron’s Lisa Falkenberg has picked up on the Texas Monthly story about Swearingen. She adds a few new details, including this:

Attorneys with the New-York based Innocence Project are also working feverishly on requests for DNA testing on the panty hose, Trotter’s clothing and more blood scrapings. They plan to appeal to Gov. Rick Perry’s office for a stay, and have unsuccessfully tried to get newly elected Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon to support a request for DNA testing.

Ligon didn’t return my call. Marc Brumberger, who handles the office’s appeals, said the new evidence doesn’t prove Swearingen didn’t kill Trotter. It only “throws in the prospect” that Swearingen may have initially refrigerated or frozen her body, then had help from an accomplice moving it into the woods while he was in jail.

[Swearingen’s attorney James] Rytting calls that far-fetched theory “guilt by imagination.” He said the DA’s office is grasping for explanations now that their case is crumbling.

“Their case is a lie and they’re going to kill him anyway,” Rytting says.

I shouldn’t be by now, but I continue to be amazed at how utterly pigheaded some DA’s offices can be about this. Have we learned nothing from Dallas’ experience? Let me put this in the simplest terms I can, simple enough that even Brett Ligon and Mark Brumberger can understand it: The actions of the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office will enable a murderer to walk free and possibly to kill again. Even if you don’t care about Larry Swearingen, you ought to care about that.