News 10.29.07

Dispatch from Austin: A panel of experts to oversee Texas crime labs


By Gabriel S. Oberfield, Innocence Project Research Analyst

I’m writing from Austin, Texas, where today I’m attending a meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Today’s meeting is an important milestone for forensic science because the commission, created in 2005 to investigate allegations of serious negligence and misconduct affecting the integrity of forensic results, finally received funding this year to complete its duties. During the 2007 session, the Texas legislature budgeted for the commission’s operation and for full-time staff. This is an extremely positive development, and it is  exciting to see a newly energized commission in action.

This panel was created out of necessity. The federal government offers crucial funding to forensic laboratories, but only when jurisdictions can show they have a process in place to independently investigate allegations of serious forensic negligence or misconduct. Texas receives these funds – part of the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant Program – and as a result of Congress’s insistence on the existence of such a quality assurance process, Texas also now has an oversight mechanism in place.  

Texas deserves credit for creating this panel, which provides an extremely important additional check on the quality of forensic evidence. We anticipate that the commission, now functional, will help ensure that serious forensic negligence or misconduct is properly investigated; problems are addressed; and that where the errors may have tainted yet other cases, those cases are reviewed.  Doing so can not only right past wrongs, but can help ensure the integrity of forensic evidence in future cases – and restore Texas jurors’ ability to have faith in such evidence.  In the wake of significant forensic negligence or misconduct in any state, such assurances are critical to the performance of our justice system.

As posts on this blog over the last few weeks have shown, Texas is a state with a history of problematic forensics.

Ronnie Taylor’s release

in Houston earlier this month showed that those problems haven’t all been resolved, and that lab errors can send innocent people to prison. The Innocence Project has filed two requests with the Texas Forensic Science Commission (to investigate the cases of

Brandon Lee Moon

and

Cameron Todd Willingham

), and we’re hopeful that these investigations are undertaken by the newly funded panel. By tracing back wrongful convictions and determining why they happened in the first place, we can help prevent future injustice.

While federal law does not require creation of permanent commissions, Texas’s creation of an independent state body to oversee the quality of forensics represents a real commitment to the future of forensic analyses in that state, and is part of what seems to be a national trend. While the demand for forensic technologies continues to grow, state and local lab technicians are forced to juggle substantial caseloads and struggle for the funding, equipment and staffing they deserve. Some national organizations accredit and regularly inspect state and local forensic labs, but many states recognize that forensic labs can only provide the high quality work expected of them when they have an expert, independent entity ensuring the quality of work – and identifying the support they need to provide that quality, which is so critical to justice.

Just this year, Minnesota created a Forensic Laboratory Advisory Board “to ensure the quality and integrity” of the state’s labs and Missouri created a similar Crime Laboratory Review Commission. Maryland legislators empowered the state’s office of Health and Mental Hygiene to oversee that state’s forensic labs, bringing the same rigor with which that department manages the state’s clinical laboratories to its forensic labs as well.

For a host of reasons, we’re encouraged by the movement to ensure that forensic labs – a cornerstone of the criminal justice system – are provided the support and direction necessary to provide the quality forensic results that the system demands of them.  The Innocence Project knows well that by ensuring quality forensics, states can prevent future wrongful convictions from ever occurring.

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