Texas Forensics: Fingerprints, Fires and Email


This week has brought more news from Texas on unvalidated forensics and questionable lab procedures, while the state commission charged with investigating allegations of forensic negligence and misconduct continues to draw questions from lawmakers and the media.

New forensic problems were reported Tuesday from the troubled Houston Police Department. An audit of fingerprint analysis cases handled by HPD found problems in half of the cases reviewed, leading officials to suggest the need for a thorough review of all fingerprint cases in the city in the last six years. The lab is also facing a two-year backlog of 6,000 cases that have yet to be examined.  And Wednesday, officials announced that the investigation could result in criminal charges relating to lab misconduct.

The reports are reminiscent of problems that closed the Houston Police DNA lab in 2002 and again suspended testing in 2008. A two-year audit completed in 2007 found extensive problems in the lab stretching over several years. At least three people have been exonerated through DNA tests after serving years in prison based in part on faulty tests by the Houston lab.

Read more about the fingerprint news in Houston Chronicle stories from





And there are also new questions this week about the status of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey wrote on Tuesday that he’s troubled by a new email policy announced by commission chairman John Bradley.

Chairman Bradley told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram through an e-mail, that he “simply seeks to make sure that all relevant information is saved at a single location.”

That is patently absurd. You don't need to be a scientist to understand that deleting e-mails doesn't save them at a central location.

Read Casey’s full column

. (Houston Chronicle, 12/1/09)

The commission was in the process of reviewing evidence in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004, when Gov. Rick Perry abruptly replaced four members of the group in October. Bradley was named as the new chairman. For more on the TFSC and the Willingham case,

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And a recent story in the Waco Tribune examined the impact of the Willingham case on arson investigations statewide. The story notes that the arson investigation field now relies on more scientifically sound practices, but that many convictions may have been based on the same kind of disproven methods used in the Wllingham case.

[Killeen, Texas, Fire Marshal James] Chism said the controversy over the Willingham case is a good chance for the profession to look at old investigations where questionable techniques may have been used. The industry also needs to seize the opportunity to weed out investigators who cling to outdated beliefs. It would be naive to think none exist, he said.

“Whether it is an old-school mentality or sheer laziness because it’s what they’ve always done, I still have to think those old wives’ tales are still getting play in the state of Texas,” Chism said.

Read the full story

. (Waco Tribune, 11/29/09)

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