The publication Government Technology has an extensive feature focusing on the Houston lab as an example of virtually everything that can go wrong with forensic analysis, declaring that "Some problems with the HPD Crime Lab - such as underfunding, poor staff training and close ties to police and prosecutors - also may be inherent in crime labs across the country."
While many mistakes at the Houston crime lab resulted from sloppiness and understaffing, but nearly all errors tended to favor the prosecution over the defense:
In late 2002, television station KHOU in Houston looked into deficiencies of the HPD Crime Lab and asked William Thompson, University of California, Irvine professor and forensic expert, to investigate.Thompson also said a lack of independence and "team spirit" favoring the prosecution contribute to misleading testimony and reliance on flawed forensics:
"The problems were just obvious," Thompson said. "They weren't running proper scientific controls. They were giving misleading testimony. They were computing their statistics incorrectly - in a way that was biased against the accused in many cases."
In some cases, Thompson found simple errors where documentation said Sample A matched Sample B, for instance, which was untrue. There were cases where Thompson found inconsistencies between the lab report and what was said in court. ...
Though most of the errors can be attributed to sloppiness, incompetence and lack of training, Thompson found that the lab ordinarily erred on the prosecution's side.
Crime analysts are given evidence from a crime and usually told to look for something in particular. When the evidence or lab test results are unclear, the analysts might have incentive to find results favoring the police's case. "I think forensic labs get a little bit caught up in the heat of the battle from our adversarial process," Thompson said.The problem of a "team spirit" attitude is that when the wrong person is accused - like the Josiah Sutton case featured in the story - scientists may find themselves bending their results to benefit the wrong "team," or at least the team opposed to justice in that particular instance. Forensic labs should be more like referees than team players - neutral arbiters on which both sides can rely - but that's not how things operate in the real world.
"It's like team spirit. They see the defense counsel as their enemy and tend to be kind of secretive and not want to disclose things outside of the family."
This "team spirit" atmosphere doesn't just infect the Houston crime lab but is part of the overall culture in these institutions, or at least the ones directly associated with law enforcement. I'd not heard this anecdote, for example, which shows Texas state crime labs may face the same pressures as at HPD:
In January 2008, the HPD lab's DNA supervisor, Vanessa Nelson, resigned after an internal investigation concluded she had helped crime lab analysts pass DNA skills tests by improperly giving them test answers. Within weeks she was hired by the state crime lab as DNA chief, prompting State Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, to call the hiring "shocking."This notion that scientists are on one or another "side" of a criminal case leads to a situation where the basic tenets of science - particularly open mindedness and objectivity - become distorted in the service of an agenda. The adversarial system is designed to vet evidence, but indigent defendants cannot pay for private labs and don't have authority without a judge's approval to request specific tests from the state run laboratories.
Thompson said it was that inherent team culture that prompted Nelson to cheat. "The same kind of pressures that existed before existed again," he said. "Why would this brand-new head of the DNA unit cover up a cheating problem on proficiency tests? Because she's under the same pressure they were under before."
Several people in the article called for making crime labs "independent," but they won't be truly independent unless defense counsel can request tests just like the prosecutors and the testers no longer believe they're on the prosecution's "team."