In 2012, after numerous issues and concerns with the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory, Mayor Annise Parker made the decision to approve an independent laboratory for the City of Houston. Conveniently, the name of the laboratory changed but not much else. The laboratory is still located at the Houston Police Department Headquarters, the laboratory is still staffed by the same analysts and employees and many of the same issues we’ve been experiencing for years haven’t been corrected as evidenced in findings from a recent investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Among the most chilling findings, the laboratory management namely William Arnold, still believes that errors and mistakes made during blood ethanol analysis should be dealt with informally to avoid disclosure to the defense. This includes errors as egregious as “accidentally” switching blood samples and reporting incorrect results on final lab reports used in trial against citizens accused of DWI.
I am afraid that Dan Garner, CEO and President of the Houston Forensic Science Center or Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory as it should be referred to, has caused a little confusion in the answers he provided Forensic Magazine. Below you will find the interview along with clarification from the view of the defense bar:
Forensic Magazine: What were the biggest changes necessitated by the transition to an independent lab?
Dan Garner: There were significant cultural changes and physical changes involved with the transition. The physical changes included separating and securing space for the Houston Forensic Science Center from HPD, as well as separating networks and systems, etc. The cultural changes, which are ongoing, include thinking in terms of serving HPD, prosecutors, and the defense bar as equal customers. We are not on anyone’s team. So HFSC is now a science and technology-based company, not a component of a law enforcement organization. This cultural transition will take time to complete.
To date, the Houston Forensic Science Commission is still located within the Houston Police Department in the exact same location as the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory. The name has changed but the laboratory and its employees are the same. The Defense Bar has yet to be treated as an equal customer. Laboratory employees speak directly to the District Attorney’s Office regarding all matters related to pending cases with no disclosure made to the defense. Laboratory employees testify in court routinely and inform judges and juries that they do not follow standard operating procedures but that their failure to follow these important guidelines does not effect the results of the analysis in a case. The analysts testify using scientific theories without all the facts necessary to apply the theory to a particular case. Refer to the Texas Forensic Science Commission’s Final Report at the link provided below for a more detailed description.
FM: What was the process used to transition to the new administration?
DG: Mayor Annise Parker had City of Houston attorneys draft incorporation papers for a Local Government Corporation under Texas law. She appointed an initial board of directors with City Council approval. The Board then recruited and hired the CEO who then staffed up a corporate staff to manage the forensic operations.
Our bylaws and the interlocal agreement that made this all possible can be viewed on our website.
FM: Has the transition necessitated any changes in workflow or operating procedures in the lab?
DG: Yes. For example, in the fingerprints division we have transitioned from using an outside contractor doing the identification to completing the work in house. In addition, procedures for working cases from non-HPD sources had to be established and integrating workflow between sections had to be revised. HFSC has also obtained international accreditation under FQS ISO/IEC 17025:2005 and FBI QAS (Federal Bureau of Investigation Quality Assurance Standards)
FM: Will the new processes require any changes to the lab facility? If so, what?
DG: Yes. HFSC is currently looking for additional off-site space for some its divisions, while it also explores building a completely new facility within four to five years. The goal is to be in a building completely separate from HPD, whereas at the moment HFSC is leasing several floors in HPD’s headquarters building in downtown Houston.
FM: What have been the greatest benefits to an independent lab?
DG: It’s too early to tell, but the goal is high quality forensic analysis without bias in a timely manner.
There has yet to be any changes or benefit to HFSC becoming an independent laboratory.
FM: Has there been any pushback from law enforcement who are now working with an independent lab?
DG: No. HPD has been very supportive
FM: How has the interaction between law enforcement and the lab changed?
DG: The police department, prosecutors, and the defense bar are now all treating the Center as an independent member of the criminal justice system.
The Defense Bar is not of the opinion that the HFSC is acting as a separate independent member of the criminal justice system. The lab and its employees are biased witnesses on the side of the prosecution. Analysts aid in facilitating convictions rather than testifying to the science behind the analysis. As mentioned before, the laboratory and its employees continuously fail to disclose laboratory errors and continuously violate their own Standard Operating Procedures which are required to be followed in order for the laboratory to keep its accreditation.
FM: Would you recommend a similar transition to other cities?
DG: It should definitely be considered.
FM: What advice would you give on how to smoothly transition from a law enforcement run lab to an independent lab?
DG: Come and visit. There are a large number of issues dealing with people, space, and equipment that had to be addressed and we are now in a position to help others overcome some of the hurdles and ease some of the more difficult parts of the transition.
Dan Garner chose to speak on behalf of the defense bar in this article instead of actually consulting with any members of the defense bar. During the HFSC investigation by the TFSC, Dan Garner refused to respond to questions by the TFSC and did not participate in the investigation. Though Mr. Garner would like you to believe the HFSC is a more credible and reliable laboratory, we tend to disagree. We’ve tried numerous DWI cases in which HFSC performed blood ethanol analysis and analysts from the laboratory were subpoenaed to testify. Unfortunately, the testimony is continuously dishonest and the science is riddled with errors. Responses to discovery orders continue to be incomplete and we have yet to receive any corrective action reports (for known errors during the analysis and preparation procedures) from the HFSC as required by all accrediting bodies. Our hope is that one day crime laboratories become truly transparent to the defense. Right now…they lie!
Texas Forensic Science Final Report – Investigation Houston Forensic Science Center
Houston Forensic Science Center Memo – addressing efforts to correct problems within the laboratory
Full Article – A Lab Apart – Forensic Magazine