Press Release from City Council Member Helena Brown:
When Houston City Council formed the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Committee (LGC) in an effort to establish an “independent” crime lab, Houstonians might not have thought it could have amounted to a front for the continued operations of the HPD Crime Lab, but it has. The stated purpose of the LGC is that it would provide an outside assessment, independent of HPD. On February 13, 2013, HPD’s Executive Assistant Chief Oettmeier and Assistant Chief Slinkard gave a report before City Council just barely allowing the LGC chair, the Honorable Scott Hochberg, room to squeeze in at the edge of the podium. The fact that the committee report was dominated by HPD personnel violates the very premise on which the committee was founded. The issue with the HPD Crime Lab has not been merely forensic testing or the lack thereof, but fundamental and pervasive failures for the past twenty years in the professional culture and competency of the lab’s leadership and personnel. Fixing the failed crime lab must involve replacing the institution that has perpetually failed in its attempts to properly administer it, the Houston Police Department. Leaving HPD involved is unacceptable from both a policy and ethical standpoint. Crime lab failures have jeopardized the City of Houston to millions of dollars in lawsuits. These suits will continue until we make more than a cosmetic change. The greatest liability and cost to the City could be those cases where an individual was taken to trial and found guilty without testing the Sexual Assault Kit (SAK) and later testing indicated a different person. The cases of Ricardo Rachelle and George Rodriguez represent the very worst of our Crime Lab. Among the reported 6,663 untested SAKs, it can be assumed that there are more cases of failed justice to be discovered. Regardless of the cost of our failed HPD Crime Lab, the primary role of government in this matter is to ensure justice, not to cover up forensic mistakes in order to save face or money. When, on February 13, the Assistant Chiefs announced their proposal to have two out-of-state vendors test the untested SAKs, they asserted that HPD would make the final decision on whether to enter the results into CODIS or not, and that HPD would decide on whether anything would be done with the results or not. The Assistant Chiefs also reported that they had received a letter indicating that Harris County would no longer be taking any kits, when in fact the letter from the Chief Medical Examiner Sanchez last July clearly indicated simply a brief cessation due to their relocation in November 2012. The new proposal to “get rid of the backlog” and at rock bottom prices is wrong on many levels. The claim of cost savings associated with the proposed contracts is uncertain given unspecified consultation costs (fee schedule) and transportation costs (travel from Virginia and Utah to Houston for court testimony relating to results). The liability to our community is manifold when we mishandle evidence. Serial rapists have been identified in cases tied to previously unprocessed SAKs. The situation becomes deadlier when serial rapists with AIDS and other deadly diseases are free to prey upon the men, women, and children of our community. It is unacceptable that our city thus far has failed to correct the problems and get this right moving forward. Over six thousand SAKs have gone untested for years, but we need an account of an even higher number of SAKs currently at the Crime Lab. Two years ago, Irma Rios, the past Crime Lab director, reported that there were a total of 15,500 SAKs in the Crime Lab Property Room. If these SAKs have been tested, it is paramount to know if all the results have been entered into CODIS or not. If they have been destroyed, we need an explanation as to why. Public attention is being given to what might be this administration’s intent with the new proposal: “manage,” “eliminate,” “clear,” and “vanish” are some of the terms being used to describe the proposed testing of the SAK back-log at these supposed bargain rates. Testing the SAKs is a matter pertaining to lives forever affected by these horrendous attacks; this is not a matter of wiping a dry-erase board clean to “start fresh.” The City of Houston should give the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences an opportunity to bid on the bulk-testing of the 6,663 SAKs. Houston has the largest medical center in the nation; let’s keep the jobs in Houston, and eliminate the transportation cost for court testimony. If we move forward with the out-of-state vendors it must be for justice’s sake not to “get rid of” the backlog by simply testing to “clear the slate” and do nothing with the results; that is not justice. With the out-of-state vendors’ proposal, the City should guarantee that all test results will be entered into CODIS as soon as each result is available. The City should set up a protocol for the processing of the untested SAKs; all SAKs which are tied to cases already closed should be tested first. By restoring integrity to our forensic testing, we will ensure that justice is served in Houston.
Update: Janice Evans with Mayor Annise Parker’s office says there will be no response to this statement.