Working to move beyond troubled past at Houston's crime lab

Report raises concerns in some legal circles about quality of lab's work

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - The Houston Forensic Science Center processes between 24,000 and 25,000 requests a year. The requests entail analyzing and testing everything from blood to drugs to guns -- evidence that is key in criminal cases.

However, a year-old report issued by the Texas Forensic Science Commission continues to raise concerns in some legal circles about the quality of the lab's work.

The commission's report involved the 2013 mishandling of a blood a sample in a drunken driving case and the subsequent response by managers at the lab well into 2014.

The commission reported incomplete paperwork from a Houston police officer led to the sample being mislabeled and then misplaced. The report noted the District Attorney's Office eventually had to dismiss the case because the blood sample could not be found.

The commission took to task the lab's then interim-manager for trying to handle the error in a less than formal fashion after the missing sample was eventually found in a lab cooler. The analyst involved in handling the sample self-disclosed the error to the commission. In January 2015, the commission issued a finding of professional negligence.

While the report is now a year old, it is still having some impact in the criminal justice system.

"To me this was another embarrassment from a crime lab with a very checkered past," said Tyler Flood, an attorney who is president-elect of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. "Informal means undocumented so nobody can find out about it."

Flood recently wrote a blog article on the association's website about the commission's findings. Flood said the reason for writing the article was because the commission's report became a point of contention during DWI trial that ended in December with a not guilty verdict and he wanted to make sure colleagues handling these type of cases where aware of its existence.

"How do you know these things aren't happening right now?" Flood said in reference to the commission's findings.

To answer that question, Channel 2 Investigates sat down with the vice president and chief operating officer of the Houston Forensic Science Center, Dr. Peter Stout, to find out what changes the lab has made in the year since the Commission's report was issued. Stout was hired to this position after the commission's findings were issued.

"What assurances can you give the public that something like this won't happen again?" asked Channel 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

"Between then and now we've been able to do a variety of things," said Stout.

The center became an independent agency, out from under the auspices of the Houston Police Department, in 2014. Stout said this has given the center control over setting strict policies on the submission, testing and handling of evidence.

Stout said one of the main changes is the lab will now reject evidence from a police officer if the paperwork is incomplete or incorrect. This means no evidence is tested or analyzed until the lab is certain the sample is properly labeled.

Before this change the lab had a policy to test samples with incomplete or incorrect paperwork, then set the sample and corresponding report aside until those errors were corrected.

When the center instituted this new policy in July, the rejection rate was about 40 percent.

"We still have a lot of work to do on that, right now we're rejecting around 20 percent," Stout said.

"What should the rate be?" asked Arnold.

"In my opinion the rate should be something less than 1 percent," said Stout.

Stout said the center is continually helping to train HPD officers to help cut down the rejection rate.

As for the manager cited in the state's report, Stout said all other cases under that person's tenure were checked and no other errors found.

"Is that person still doing lab work or supervising lab work?" Arnold said.

"No, he is not," Stout said.

Stout said that person was reassigned to IT.

Stout also said policies were changed to ensure errors are immediately reported and thoroughly documented. Stout said the center has also started a blind quality control program where phony samples are slipped into analysts workloads as an extra way to check that all tests are being performed properly.

2016 Click2Houston/KPRC2