Can We Trust Texas Crime Labs? NO.

Many, many, many criminal defense attorneys in the State of Texas cast a wary eye at any test results coming out of crime labs in this state, because all too often, state forensic evidence has shown itself to be faulty.  Unlike the CSI shows on TV, all sorts of crazy stuff appears to happen in the real world of Texas forensic laboratories.

For example, just last month the Houston Chronicle reported that the fingerprint comparison unit of the Houston Police Department was being investigated for untrustworthy results, “shoddy” work, and a backlog of over 600 cases.  (We’ve already reported on how FINGERPRINTS just aren’t reliable anymore.) 

Forensic Lab Oversight Agency Efforts are Being Questioned

However, the media spotlight on the execution of an innocent man here in Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham, really fueled the fire — why wasn’t the “arson” evidence refuted as faulty back at trial time?  Suddenly, the little known Texas Forensic Science Commission (an agency established to oversee the state’s crime labs) was in the hot seat. 

And the Texas Forensic Science Commission doesn’t appear to like this much. 

Under the Texas Open Records Act, the news media can gain access to all public information held by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.  However, it’s been easier said than done since the FSC has used the lingo within that statute to try and hold onto its files, holding on hard.  The Fort Worth Star Telegram asked for information, and the FSC fought against turning stuff over to the paper. 

The Commission’s white-knuckled grip did get released a bit, after the Texas Attorney General (yep, the state’s highest attorney had to get involved) ruled that the FSC had to release some of the info that the newspaper requested, as it was indeed, “public” information.  The Fort Worth Star Telegram finally got a part of what it asked for — a week after the AG said they had to do it.

Forensic Science Commission’s Revelations Are Serious and Worrisome

What was included in the information that the FSC was forced to release?  Well, of immediate interest to those of us practicing in the Dallas area, the revelation that someone who used to work at the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences was a whistleblower, telling the FSC all about faulty DNA analysis, tainted rape kits, and unreliable blood stock.  That’s right — bad forensics right here, at the Dallas crime lab.  

This is all very, very scary and should be concerning all of us.  Both the police and the state prosecutors as well as  juries and the public at large tend to bow down to Forensic Evidence as if it were, indeed, revelations from On High.  Don’t forget that the Austin Police are going so far as to use DNA evidence to track down burglars these days ….

What Can We Do?  Criminal Defense Lawyers Can Fight Back Now – Thanks to the United States Supreme Court

Meanwhile, the United States Supreme Court is getting involved.  As we’ve discussed, whether or not police lab experts can be cross-examined by criminal defense counsel was decided this summer in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 129 S.Ct. 2527 (2009).  The highest court in the land opined that it is a violation of the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment not to allow the defense attorney to examine the forensic scientist who created the analysis or report that the state has placed into evidence.

Of course, this is far from enough to solve this problem — the ability to cross-examine forensic scientists on their analysis in the witness stand means an innocent defendant has already undergone investigation, arrest, and has been forced to trial in order to vindicate himself from bad science.   We need more. 

However, between the media’s efforts and a strong defense attorney there’s more hope now than ever before.  Certainly more now that there was years back, for Cameron Todd Willingham.


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