POLICE Department

Crime Lab - Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions Regarding the
HPD Crime Lab and Project 280

How were the problems with the HPD Crime Lab discovered?

In November 2002, the Houston Police Department Crime Lab came under scrutiny due to local newscasts that highlighted several criminal cases, one of which was the Josiah Sutton case. The Houston Police Department requested an independent audit of the Crime Lab’s DNA section. Shortly thereafter, the Crime Lab’s DNA testing was suspended.

What steps were taken to address those problems that were brought up?

•   The Internal Affairs Division investigated several Crime Lab cases for both criminal and administrative violations. As a result of the investigations, various administrative cites were sustained. Several supervisors resigned in lieu of termination. Based on the severity of the violations, discipline ranged from a written reprimand to 28 days of suspension.

•   All of the internal affairs investigations were reviewed by the District Attorney’s Office for criminal misconduct. Two separate Grand Juries reviewed the evidence in the crime lab investigations and no indictments were returned.

•   A Needs Assessment was completed on May 2003 by the NFSTC (National Forensic Science and Technology Center). Consequently, an Interim Lab Director was employed by the name of Frank Fitzpatrick. In October 2003, Irma Rios was hired as the department’s Lab Director.

•   Ms. Rios is currently leading the Crime Lab through the accreditation process. Extensive training, competency testing, and a comprehensive quality assurance program were instituted. During this period, as a result of the intensive assessment, Toxicology testing was suspended.

•   Since then external training in Toxicology was initiated and completed. This service was reopened April 2004.

•   Additionally, training and remediation guidance were provided by the following entities:

Harris County ME’s Office
Texas DPS
Sam Houston University

What is Project 280?

In August of 2004, 282 additional boxes of crime lab evidence in the department’s Property Room were located. Investigation indicates that the evidence was improperly labeled and stored, and dates from the 1970’s to the late 1980’s before DNA evidence was widely accepted by the courts. The evidence is being catalogued, cases supplemented and returned to the original investigative units for final review and disposition.

Has any evidence been located that would lead to an exoneration of any death row inmate?

•   Currently, 80% of the approximate 8,000 pieces of evidence have been catalogued and we expect the remaining 20% to be completed by late March. No evidence, to date, has been found related to any active investigation. Furthermore, to date, no evidence has been located that appears to have played a critical role in a death row case. HPD is working closely with the District Attorney’s Office as evidence in capital murder cases is identified.

•   The department continues to work with the District Attorney’s Office for petitions under Chapter 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The petitions are compared with case files to ensure that any evidence linked to an adjudicated case is available for re-testing and/or review as provided by law. Again, to date no evidence has been linked to the 404 DNA cases that were originally requested for re-testing.

What is Chapter 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure?

Chapter 64 under the Code of Criminal Procedure allows a convicted person to submit a motion to the convicting court for forensic DNA testing of evidence. Only evidence that was secured in relation to the offense and was the basis for conviction can be subjected to DNA testing.

What avenue do inmates have to request testing of DNA evidence that may have resulted in their conviction?

An inmate can file a motion under Chapter 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The department works with the District Attorney’s Office for petitions under Chapter 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. In accordance with state law, indigent inmates are provided counsel and DNA testing free of charge.

What is DNA re-testing?

Cases were identified in which the HPD Crime Lab DNA section originally processed evidence which led to a conviction or pleading of a defendant. These cases were reviewed and available evidence was sent to one of three accredited out source DNA Labs for DNA re-testing. To date, only the Josiah Sutton case through more sophisticated DNA re-testing resulted in exclusion.

What is the progress of the Houston Police Department’s Crime Lab national accreditation?

In an effort to become accredited, an ASCLD-LAB (American Society of Crime Lab Directors-Laboratory Accreditation Board) inspection was conducted September 2004. A follow-up inspection is scheduled for early February 2005. Information from the initial inspection indicated only administrative corrections were needed, no issues were found that would suspend testing or stop the accreditation process. We hope to have accreditation for the below listed areas by the end of May.

The department is seeking accreditation in the following areas:

1. Biology ( exclusive of DNA)
2. Toxicology
3. Controlled Substance
4. Firearms
5. Questioned Documents

What is ASCLD-LAB and what does it involve?

The ASCLD-LAB acronym stands for the American Society of Crime Lab Directors-Laboratory Accreditation Board. The accreditation process involves a team of inspectors that audits the facility, procedures, equipment, staff and protocols for compliance with industry standards. Internal inspections are required yearly and external inspections every five years. This assures the Criminal Justice System of the accuracy of our results and provides for external audits to identify vulnerabilities.

What is the responsibility of the Project Leader?

The Project Leader is being selected to review past and current practices of the HPD Crime Lab. The audit objective is to include a determination as to whether the Crime Lab complied with internal standards and generally accepted practices of the forensic community during the time frame of 1987 through 2004. The Project Leader will provide monthly reports of the progress to the Chief of Police and a Community Stakeholder Committee. The anticipated start date for the Project Leader is late March 2005.

The Houston Police Department is committed to full accreditation for the Crime Lab. A continued process of improvement through internal and external reviews will make the Houston Police Department‘s Crime Lab one of the best in the nation. Our ultimate goal is to earn once more the confidence of our community and of the criminal justice system.