Outside review of HPD lab cases debated
Lawmaker at odds with local leaders cites need for independence
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
A state legislator on Monday pledged to do whatever it takes to inject independence into ongoing reviews of problem cases from the Houston crime lab, rejecting local officials’ assurances that police and prosecutors can handle the task.
“It is outrageous to expect the same players who may have mishandled these cases in the first place to be in control of the review,” said Rep. Kevin Bailey after a legislative hearing on Houston’s response to recommendations on how to improve its crime lab, which has been under scrutiny since its shoddy work was exposed in November 2002.
The final report on a $5.3 million probe of the Houston Police Department crime lab outlined reforms for completing a review of the lab’s historical problems and for improving current operations. The investigation, which began in April 2005, was opened more than two years after revelations of sloppy science and poorly trained analysts at the lab touched off a scandal that cast doubts on thousands of cases and led to two men’s release from prison.
Investigators’ recommendations, released in June, included hiring an independent “special master” to review some 180 cases with problematic serology, or blood, evidence. They also proposed dozens of steps for enhancing training, equipment and procedures at the lab.
Local officials quickly rejected the special master proposal, but they have moved toward adopting other recommendations, officials told members of the House committees on urban affairs and general investigating and ethics who met in Houston.
Police Chief Harold Hurtt and Crime Lab Director Irma Rios detailed a series of steps HPD has taken, including adding quality control positions, increasing lab funding and building a new property room.
But Hurtt and Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who also spoke before the committees, remained resistant to independent investigator Michael Bromwich’s proposal that an independent entity review the 180 problematic cases.
“At some time and place the department and the District Attorney’s office and the court system of Harris County have to regain the confidence of the public as people that can and will do the job,” Hurtt said.
Hurtt, Rosenthal and Mayor Bill White have said they will review the cases as well as about 400 others that Bromwich’s team identified. They said they will forward their findings to the courts and report their progress to the stakeholder committee, a panel of representatives from the community that has monitored the lab investigation for more than two years.
But legislators, including Houston Democrats Bailey and Harold Dutton, and Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, questioned whether an outsider would not be better suited to the task.
A number of models could be used to ensure independence, Bailey said, suggesting that the recently formed Texas Forensic Science Commission or an existing state district judge could perform the review. If needed, Bailey said, he would propose legislation requiring Houston to open the review to an outsider.