The Houston Police Department has spent millions of dollars over several years rebuilding its DNA lab and recovering from scandal and misconduct, but a backlog of untested evidence continues to mount.
The lab still has over 4,000 untested rape kits dating back to 1996 and nearly 1,000 newer cases waiting for DNA tests. The backlog has prevented the HPD from keeping up with daily requests to test crime scene evidence, and Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos recently called for the creation of an emergency DNA lab to handle the overflow.
County officials support Lykos’ plan of opening an emergency lab by mid-September. She told the Houston Chronicle how important it is for a lab to be formed immediately:
“The scientific tools exist to identify, apprehend and successfully prosecute dangerous criminals and prevent wrongful convictions. And we don’t have them,” she said.
In the meantime, the HPD will hire additional analysts and buy new equipment to update the current DNA lab at the downtown police headquarters. Innocence Project of Texas General Counsel Jeff Blackburn told the Chronicle that the responsibility for forensic testing should be moved to an independent entity:
“At a bare minimum, the whole process of forensic testing — old cases or new cases — has to be removed over to some responsible entity and, given the track record of HPD, they’re not the ones to do this,” said Jeff Blackburn, general counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas. “They just can’t clean this up.”
Harris County’s Chief Medical examiner Dr. Luis A Sanchez said his department is ready to step in and take over
DNA testing from the HPD.
“Valid science is the cornerstone of the criminal justice system,” Sanchez wrote in a statement. “Our commitment to move forward with this essential endeavor rests with the City of Houston. We now await the necessary resources to create and support the regional DNA laboratory.”