The Houston Chronicle
BYLINE: By JAMES PINKERTON, HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Backlog stirs calls for a new facility
Seven years after the Houston Police Department crime lab scandal first broke, city officials acknowledged this week that nearly 4,000 rape kits and other crime evidence remain untested for DNA.
According to HPD Crime Lab Director Irma Rios, that untested evidence stored in the property room includes a backlog of 1,048 active cases where police investigators have asked for DNA testing.
The evidence is from cases involving sexual assaults, burglaries and homicides, she said. In many cases not deemed active, officials said results would not be useful. For example, some evidence in rape cases was gathered too late after the crime.
Officials say the continuing HPD backlog has increased the urgency for Houston and Harris County leaders to build a regional forensic lab, even as the city announced plans Thursday to spend $1.3 million to upgrade its understaffed DNA lab.
Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos wants quicker action on the proposed city-county merger, saying the existing backlog endangers public safety.
"If you have all those rape kits that are untested, that means there are predators, sexually violent predators, that are free to roam," Lykos said. "And there are delays in trial because someone has been arrested and there is forensic evidence to be tested."
DA backs regional lab
Before it was closed in late 2002 by Police Chief Harold Hurtt, the crime lab was plagued by problems ranging from water leaks that destroyed evidence, to unqualified criminalists whose poor techniques destroyed evidence during testing. Subsequent investigation found cases in which lab results appeared to have been changed to bolster police testimony in criminal cases. To date, four people have been released from prison as a result of faulty crime lab work.
Earlier this week, the county's budget office released a 63-page consultant's study offering nuts-and-bolts details of a shared facility to be located at the Texas Medical Center. The plan calls for the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office to take over DNA testing from HPD in four phases.
Eventually, the combined lab would have a $23.5 million annual budget - the city providing $14 million and the county $9 million - while staffing would go from 39 to 190, according to preliminary county budget estimates.
The proposed regional lab eventually may be located in a new multimillion-dollar medical examiners complex that was approved by voters in 2007. The site will be decided next June.
Lykos, however, said there should be no delay in combining the DNA labs.
"I don't want to wait until midyear 2010. There are buildings over there we can rehab, equip and put scientists in.
We could do it fairly swiftly," said the district attorney, who backs the regional lab concept for the 13-county Houston area. "I think it's absolutely imperative that we begin with that."
Shortage of staff
Houston police could not provide a breakdown but said many of the nearly 4,000 rape kits awaiting processing have not been tested because the results would not be useful to criminal investigations. In some cases, the evidence was provided by victims who have credibility or mental health issues, by alleged victims who later recanted, or in cases where the suspect admitted having sex with the victim but claimed it was consensual, HPD spokesman Kese Smith said.
With four DNA analyst positions open, there is not enough staff to process the backlog of 1,048 active cases, Rios said.
HPD announced Thursday that it had received a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that will allow the lab to hire more staff, equipment and outsource some of the backlog.
Rios wants to reduce the backlog to 100 cases and cut processing for DNA evidence to 30 days. "We want to put in
robots, automate the process, add a project manager as part of the grant, and outsource some of the testing."
Houston Mayor Bill White said he is concerned by the backlog and said that is why he and police officials have discussed moving the DNA section of the crime lab to temporary space at the Texas Medical Center until the joint DNA lab is agreed on.
"The best approach worldwide to DNA testing uses good scientists and scientific control procedures and a lot of automation and robotics," White said. "We could start doing some of that at one location, or under one management system, and then transfer it to a new entity if it takes awhile to put the pieces in place for a large regional facility."
Harris County officials voted Tuesday to authorize Medical Examiner Dr. Luis Sanchez to meet with Lykos and city officials to discuss the consultant's study, and to set up a schedule to develop the joint forensics lab.
Experts in DNA cases say it is critical, for credibility reasons, to move DNA labs out of the same buildings as police investigators to avoid the appearance of an "incestuous" relationship.
"There would be a lot more public confidence in a seemingly neutral body, like a medical examiner's office not connected to a law enforcement agency," said defense attorney Bob Wicoff, who has been hired by Harris County to oversee DNA retesting in past criminal cases. "By its very nature, a crime lab should be independent and not in the same building as law enforcement."
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