Feb. 24, 2020 — University of Houston Law Center Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson took the stage recently at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to discuss the current state of forensic science in Houston.
Thompson, the Newell H. Blakely Professor of Law and director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the Law Center, spoke on the topic “The Real CSI: Getting Forensic Science Right.”
Despite her career centering on the legal aspect of criminal cases, Thompson formed an interest in forensic science while studying wrongful convictions. Then Mayor Annise Parker noticed her work and asked Thompson to be a member of the inaugural Board of Directors of the Houston Forensic Science Center. She served from its inception in 2013 until 2019.
“People think that working in a crime lab is really sexy,” said Thompson. “You get to be a cop who is out there solving crime and then come back to the lab and use all these lasers. The truth is not quite like that.”
After touching on several cases mismanaged by the previous Houston Police Department Crime Lab Division, Thompson examined the integrity of forensic science as reported by the National Academy of Science.
“They conducted a multi-year study published in 2009,” Thompson said. “Sadly within the report, there were several references to the HPD crime lab, particularly under the scandals and wrongful convictions section.”
“The main focus of the report though, was this question of, what kind of work is being done in these labs, and was it really science. There are all these professionals in crime labs doing fingerprint testing, and bullet comparisons, but does this even work? Is it reliable enough to use in court?’” Thompson explained the report’s startling conclusion that the proof of scientific validity for most forensic tests simply did not exist. Even if most forensic testing is actually reliable, we have not had the means to collect the data to prove the validity of different tests.
In the wake of the problems with the Houston Police Department Crime Lab, city leaders faced the challenge of rebuilding the community’s trust in the evidence produced by the crime lab. City leaders decided to close the HPD Crime Lab and created the Houston Forensic Science Center, which assumed responsibility for nearly all the city’s forensic operations.
“This organization is very different from any other crime lab in the country,” Thompson said. “This new center operates as a local government corporation, meaning the head of the lab is called a president or CEO. The corporation is overseen by appointed community members, who have a wide range of professions. However, it remains a government agency, so its duty is to the public, not to shareholders.”
“We find that when people don’t have faith in the science being conducted they are less likely to convict a potentially dangerous person,” Thompson said. “No juror wants to be responsible for convicting someone who is innocent.”
As part of the effort to regain the community’s faith in its crime lab, the new laboratory implemented an ambitious program of blind testing to check the reliability of six types of forensic tests. By slipping mock cases into the regular workflow, and informing the analysts that there will be blind tests, the analysts are constantly wondering which of their cases are being scrutinized.
“They know that at any time they could be working on an evidence sample where the quality managers know what the expected results should be and that’s going to keep them on their toes. It becomes a quality control process,” Thompson said. Early results show the work done in the lab to be highly reliable.
The blind tests have been praised throughout the legal community. The forensic center has reached out to the legal community about the program in the hopes that it will encourage other labs to do the same thing.
“For the first time, when enough blind testing has been completed, the Houston lab will be able to give us the data on reliability that the National Academy of Science said did not exist, and this has made forensic scientists around the world sit up and take notice,” Thompson said.
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