Errors in 65 cases lead to transfer of crime scene investigator, authorities say

HOUSTON - A crime scene investigator in the Houston Police Department was transferred after investigators found dozens of errors in case reports.

The Houston Forensic Science Center on Wednesday reported to the state’s forensic oversight commission on the errors made by a crime scene investigator that required final case reports to be amended.

In auditing the officer’s cases dating back to October 2015, HFSC found 65 cases with incomplete documentation, according to an HFSC release. Thirty-two had additional administrative errors, and evidence had been misplaced in eight instances.

The affected cases include 26 homicides and five officer-involved shootings. The district attorney has been notified of all the incidents.

HFSC amended all 65 case reports.

The crime-scene officer was reassigned to a patrol position in the Houston Police Department, according to the Harris County District Attorney's Office.

The problems were found during an audit of 88 cases on which the investigator worked after a few issues were noted in a handful of cases, HFSC said.

The supervisor who conducted the initial technical reviews of the investigator’s work and did not identify the quality issues has been temporarily removed from duties, the organization said.

“HFSC has taken measures to address the mistakes made in these cases and to prevent similar errors going forward,” said Dr. Peter Stout, HFSC’s CEO and president. “The crime scene unit is a focus of HFSC’s efforts to ensure high-quality science is conducted throughout the organization, and steps are being taken to retrain and increase the technical capabilities of the staff.”

But Houston Police Officers Union head Ray Hunt says the two officers are being scapegoated.

Hunt says the police supervisor who was relieved reported problems with the investigator’s work to the Houston Forensic Center’s civilian managers in May of 2016.

“The supervisor had been reviewing the officer’s work. He saw some problems that were ongoing. He reported those multiple times to his supervisor who is a civilian who is now still over there.” Hunt said.

Hunt says there are clearly problems with the work done by the crime scene investigator, but blames them on the investigator’s lack of training, which he says was aggravated by HFSC managers decision to lay off most of the organization’s training staff due to budget cuts last year.

“Let me say about the officer, it ain’t his fault. If you’re not trained adequately and don’t have experience, you’re not going to be able to do the work properly,” he said.

In response, the forensic center released a written statement from Dr. Stout Wednesday afternoon:

“HFSC has been aware of problems and challenges in the crime scene unit since taking over management of forensic operations in April 2014. We have worked to first establish standard procedures and protocols, then to train, retrain and recruit qualified people to the unit and we have made progress. The results of this most recent audit are evidence that we have been introducing protocols and methods into a system where few existed. We are aware that some find this transition to objective processes more difficult than others, however, we are firmly committed to ensuring that all the forensic work we do - from evidence collection and through analysis - is of the highest scientific quality and best serves the justice system and the community.”

Hunt said only seven HPD officers are currently assigned to the Houston Forensic Sciences Center. He wants them removed and reassigned to HPD Homicide.

“We’re going to say now, give us all the classified officers back, then you won’t be able to say it’s HPD’s fault next time you have a problem, and mark my words, there’s going to be another problem,” Hunt said.

The Harris County district attorney was notified of the audit results on April 3 and is now reviewing the cases where problems were identified.

“The DA’s office is currently reviewing these cases to identify the affected defendants with disposed or pending cases,” Assistant D.A. David Mitcham said Wednesday.

Mitcham said so far, only one case listed in the audit, a case concerning evidence tampering, has been confirmed to have gone to court. The defendant in that case was given deferred adjudication. Mitcham said that if problematic cases are identified, defendants and their lawyers will be notified immediately.

The head of the Harris County Criminal Lawyer Association, Tyler Flood, said his organization is working closely with the district attorney.

“There are cases happening in court every day, and we just want to make sure none of those are resolved improperly, nobody pleads guilty, or goes to trial on cases that may be affected by some of this evidence,” Flood said.

The HFSC said some steps have been taken in response to the audit released last summer that found that HFSC should have at least two investigators responding to major crime scenes and should take more precautions to secure the integrity of the area.

HFSC said that in response to the audit and the more recent incidents in the crime scene unit, it has hired more than six investigators in the last year, including supervisors, and plans to hire more.

Measures have been taken to better secure crime scenes, HFSC said. All personnel in the inner perimeter of the crime scene are required to wear gloves, shoe coverings and particle masks to protect the evidence and prevent contamination.

The inner perimeter of the scene is sectioned off with red crime-scene tape, in addition to yellow tape, which marks the crime scene boundary. The inner crime scene area is restricted to key personnel, primarily crime scene and homicide investigators, HFSC said.

“We will continue to work closely with HPD and other stakeholders to ensure this first step in the forensic process evidence collection is done scientifically and is of the highest quality to help ensure the integrity of all subsequent forensic analysis,” Stout said.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office said it is notifying defense lawyers that a crime scene investigator made errors dating back to October 2015.

Prosecutors are sending notifications about the findings and the name of the officer to lawyers in each case involved, the DA's office said.

“Defense lawyers are going to have a chance to determine for themselves the relevance of these errors or omissions,“ Tom Berg, first assistant for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said Tuesday. “Because most of these cases have not yet been fully adjudicated, we won’t speculate on the possible impact, if any.”

Police Chief Art Acevedo addressed the errors Wednesday.

“The Houston Police Department has been made aware of the corrections that needed to be made with the work of a crime scene investigator by the Houston Forensic Science Center. Both classified and civilian employees performing Crime Scene functions are managed and controlled by the Houston Forensic Center. At this time, we have no indication of misconduct by any HPD employees but have been made aware that corrections to reports were needed. By policy, Dr. Stout, CEO of the HFSC, has made necessary disclosures to the Texas Forensic Science Commission and the District Attorney's Office. The Houston Police Department is a customer of the HFSC and our main priority is to receive quality, timely, accurate forensic results so we can be responsive to victims and solve crime. The department will examine the results of their recent audit. I have ordered an administrative inquiry into this matter and will report our findings in the near future.”

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