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Texas Crime Labs Must Meet New Accreditation Standards

By Catherine Cuellar, KERA 90.1 Reporter

Texas Crime Labs Must Meet New Accreditation Standards

Fort Worth, TX –

Catherine Cuellar, 90.1 reporter: With Texas executing more inmates than any other state, standards for evidence can truly mean the difference between life and death. In 2003, Houston police suspended DNA testing after a conviction based on their lab work was overturned. The Fort Worth Police Department followed suit, outsourcing its DNA analysis after an investigation of one of their forensic scientists prevented prosecutors from seeking the death penalty in a capital murder case. Fort Worth Police deputy chief Clifford Cook welcomes the accreditation of labs.

Deputy Chief Clifford Cook, Fort Worth Police: 45, 4:19 Anything that's going to require more critical reviews, improved procedures and policies, and improve the professional standards within any science or attribute of law enforcement is a good thing. 4:38

Cuellar: Texas labs must now be audited regularly and meet national standards for the qualifications of staff and the processing of evidence. But the cost of compliance has forced some respected independent labs to close. Max Courtney owned one such company, Forensic Consulting Services, for three decades. The cost of accreditation was too high for him to consider.

Max Courtney, Owner, Forensic Consulting Services: Several hundred thousand dollars minimum. We would have had to have a new building, I believe. Plus it would have taken someone probably a year I think working full-time roughly a year. In addition to that you've got the time and the expense involved with having the inspectors come on several occasions.

Cuellar: Courtney handled a year's worth of drug tests for the Fort Worth Police while their department was awaiting accreditation, and he's also been called as an expert witness for the defense to refute state evidence. He says the new standards would diminish the service he could offer his clients.

Courtney: There's just a great deal of paper shuffling involved in working cases. it has a lot to do with the quantity of work that you can do, and unfortunately in my opinion it doesn't have a whole lot of impact on the quality of work that you do. Consistently, month in and month out, our turnaround time on average was somewhere around 5 to 6 to 7 calendar days from the time the case was submitted. And that compares frankly with many labs that are doing turnarounds in five or six or seven months.

Cuellar: Art Eisenberg, who directs the accredited DNA lab at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, disagrees.

Dr. Art Eisenberg, UNTHSC: Will it translate to higher costs? Actually I think not. I think the costs of these analysis probably going down to some extent as opposed to what they used to be. I really don't see it having a significant impact on any jurisdiction's ability to get casework done in a timely fashion. If anything, perhaps it will insure even higher standards.

Cuellar: Larry Moore of the Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyers' Association says accreditation is a mixed blessing for defendants. There are also questions about evidence tested before the new standards went into effect.

Larry Moore, Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyers' Association: My thought is going to be that very clearly any of the work that was done at the time under the requirements that existed at the time is probably going to be admitted for trial, but I don't know that and so it's going to add an extra step for all of us in the business of defending people that we're going to have to run that up the flagpole and see which way it goes.

Cuellar: The Texas Department of Public Safety currently operates 13 of the 29 accredited crime labs in the state. DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange says she can't predict how the closure of non-accredited labs will affect their caseload.

Tela Mange, Texas Department of Public Safety: It's entirely possible that DPS and the other labs may be seeing more evidence as far as drug residue, fingerprint evidence, and ballistics evidence. We may see an increase in that, we may not. We're just not sure at this point.

Cuellar: Although at least 17 labs were not accredited by today's deadline, the number of accreditations is expected to increase. Houston Police are working toward DNA accreditation by next year, and Fort Worth's Police Department hopes to bring DNA testing back in-house over the next five years.
For KERA 90.1, I'm Catherine Cuellar

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