How hard can it be to run a forensic lab according to the rules? The many episodes of the CSI television dramas usually get it right, but at the Houston Police Department's crime lab, the real-life employees can't seem to get their act together.
After a scandal erupted six years ago, exposing botched handling of evidence that led to wrongful convictions of defendants and required the expenditure of $5.2 million for an investigation by a special master, the lab's management and facilities were rebuilt from the ground up. That hasn't prevented the lab's controversial DNA section from once again being shut down due to improper handling of evidence and the issuance of a critical internal report.
The DNA section chief, Vanessa Nelson, resigned after accusations she had coached technicians to pass skills tests.
As reported by the Chronicle's Roma Khanna, Nelson told investigators the operation was "clearly out of control" and plagued by staff morale problems that "will succeed in destroying the lab we worked so hard to create if they proceed on their current course." Her concerns were backed up by investigators' interviews with employees, who spoke of confusion on how to register complaints and doubts that superiors would act on them. Nelson listed a series of evidence problems at the facility, including a sample switch, contamination and botched paperwork to verify a chain of custody for materials.
Almost as alarming as the reports of new problems is the explanation of the crime lab's director, Irma Rios, for how they occurred. She described them as "growing pains" that were being dealt with as they popped up. Responsibility for many of the issues cited, such as bad staff morale and failure to set up a reporting system for misconduct, relate directly to top management. Instead, Rios focused on contamination of evidence, saying it was solved by "an intense cleaning of the lab."
Waiting for mistakes to happen before taking action is only a formula for more problems and controversy. The latest missteps indicate that to thoroughly exorcise the lab of its demons, the cleaning might need to extend beyond counters and equipment to upper management, as well.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
Houston Chronicle: DNA déjà vu
Thats title of today's editorial by Houston Chronicle about Harris County's crime lab.