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UHLC Prof. Thompson urges congressional panel to support efforts to improve the state of forensic science system

UHLC Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson outlines steps needed to improve the forensic science system in testimony before a congressional subcommittee.

March 31, 2017 — University of Houston Law Center Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson extolled the success of Houston's relatively new forensic science center during testimony before a congressional subcommittee Wednesday, and called for federal support to improve that crucial component of the criminal justice system nationwide.

Plagued by botched test results, an independent audit that raised questions about the integrity of lab work in thousands of cases, and a rape kit backlog of more than 6,000, the Houston Police Department's Crime Laboratory was reinvented as the Houston Forensic Science Center in 2014.  The new entity operates independently of law enforcement and is governed by a board of community volunteers, including Thompson.

"Today the laboratory serves as a national model, pioneering cutting-edge practices in forensic science," Thompson told members of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. "I believe these efforts can make a valuable contribution to national discussions about the future of forensic science in the United States."

Thompson specifically suggested the system could be improved by placing scientists in charge of overseeing forensic science research rather than placing the office within the Department of Justice.

She underscored the importance of independent, fully-funded, state of the art forensic science laboratories by relating the case of a Houston man who was exonerated after serving 17 years of a 60-year sentence for sexual assault based on faulty crime lab testing. "Good science applied reliably has the power to provide freedom, as it has done in every one of the 349 DNA exonerations in the United States," she said. Bad science and poor facilities not only led to the conviction of an innocent man, she added, but the man who actually assaulted the 14-year-old girl went free.

Thompson, author of "Cops in Lab Coats: Curbing Wrongful Convictions with Independent Forensic Laboratories," published in 2014, offered four recommendations for improving forensic science nationwide:

  • Include a diverse set of experts protected from politics so science and law enforcement can work cooperatively.
  • Provide sufficient federal funding for both forensic science labs and medical examiners to ensure adequate equipment, staffing, education, and training in new standards and up-to-date techniques.
  • Support the development of standardized, systematic processes for the practice of forensic science.
  • Encourage absolute transparency as a tool for accountability. Identify and remediate errors before they grow into major problems.

"We know the forensic science system can be better, and I believe that can be done when both science and justice are nurtured and valued," Thompson concluded.

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