Texas Case Highlights Problems in Forensics Lab

Forensic science is not flawless, and its use in the criminal justice system is in great need of reform.
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George Rodriguez is seeking justice. In 2004, DNA testing exonerated Rodriguez for the 1987 abduction and sexual assault he had been convicted of seventeen years earlier. During his trial, a Houston Police forensic analyst testified that biological evidence pointed to Rodriguez's guilt; it was later discovered that the analyst lied. Rodriguez is one of forty individuals exonerated by DNA in Texas, and one of six exonerated in Harris County. Read more about DNA exonerations in Texas.

A trial is now underway in Rodriguez's civil lawsuit against the City of Houston, and the city is claiming that there was nothing it could have done to prevent the misconduct of their lab analyst, whose lie led to Rodriguez's wrongful conviction. Houston city attorney Arturo Michel stated:

"I think what you have here is a person who was simply not honest and it doesn't matter how many funds you put into something, how good a program you have, that cannot guard against a person's dishonesty."

This argument is very troubling because it ignores the tragic history of mistakes and misconduct within the Houston Police Department's crime lab. Independent research conducted in 2007 found that the crime lab repeatedly incorrectly tested DNA samples, and in some cases, made up the results without actually testing the evidence. It was also discovered that serology work, the same type of forensic evidence used against George Rodriguez, was not properly performed in over four hundred cases. With a history of producing flawed and inaccurate analysis, it is little wonder that the problems of the Houston crime lab led to the false testimony of the crime lab analyst.

Forensic science is not flawless, and its use in the criminal justice system is in great need of reform. To ensure a more fair and accurate criminal justice system, it is critical to improve the reliability, objectivity, and independence of forensic analysis and forensic expert testimony in criminal investigations and trials. Last year, the Justice Project published a policy review that outlined policies for improving the quality of forensic evidence. One of the central recommendations was the need to create forensic labs that were independent of law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) echoed The Justice Project's recommendations in their report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, in which they recommended, among other things, funding to assist all forensic laboratories in the states to become independent from law enforcement agencies. With nearly all state forensic labs under the jurisdictions of police departments or the attorney general, analysts may come to see their role as part of the "crime-fighting team" rather than as neutral and objective agents of science. This bias hinders justice. Just ask George Rodriguez. His attorney is arguing that the analyst in Rodriguez's case had a habit of altering findings to match the theories of the police and prosecution.

Of course, structural independence of the labs is only one needed step. Because we know the risks of both misconduct and inadvertent bias, we should make sure that labs have appropriate internal safeguards to regulate the flow of information between analysts and police and prosecutors. By providing forensic analysts only with discreet forensic questions and limiting unnecessary contextual information about the crime, we can help ensure that the most accurate and reliable evidence is presented in the courtroom.

Forensic labs provide critical evidence in countless cases, but without the proper safeguards, evidence can be misused and misinterpreted with disastrous consequences. All of us have a vested interest in making sure the necessary reforms are implemented to make forensic evidence as accurate and reliable as possible.

John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.

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