A crime scene at the 5500 block of De Soto Street near Antoine Drive in northwest Houston.

Image: Brian Goldman

In 2002, a series of devastating investigative reports by KHOU revealed systemic mismanagement and incompetence at the Houston Police Department’s crime lab—unqualified staff, improperly labeled evidence, sloppy testing, even DNA samples contaminated by a leaky roof in the evidence room. There were thousands of untested sexual assault kits dating back to the 1980s and a 39,000-sample backlog in the controlled substances division. Three men were ultimately exonerated based on a subsequent internal review, including George Rodriguez, an inmate in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Garza Unit West, who had spent 17 years in prison for a kidnapping and rape he didn’t commit. “Worst Crime Lab in the Country?” asked a 2003 New York Times story. It seemed a reasonable question. 

In response, the HPD brought in Irma Rios, a 19-year veteran of the Texas Department of Public Safety, who arrived to find over 30 ongoing internal affairs investigations. Within a few years of her arrival, roughly 70 percent of the staff either quit or were fired, she estimates. “Some did not leave willingly, but we had to make sure we had the right people in place,” Rios said. Slowly, things began to improve: by 2005, the lab had finally received national accreditation. In 2014, in a move signaling that still more change was necessary, Mayor Parker transferred management of the lab from the HPD to a newly established government corporation, the Houston Forensic Science Center, which was placed under the control of a board of directors appointed by Parker. 

As the first major city to set up a semi-autonomous crime lab, a step first recommended by the National Academy of Science in 2009, Houston now finds itself in an unaccustomed position at the head of the field, a fresh paradigm rather than a shameful embarrassment. “The culture of this organization is a science and technology culture,” said Dan Garner, an internationally renowned forensic scientist hired by the city in 2013 to lead the transition. (Rios stayed on as the division director of forensic analysis.) “We’re not a law enforcement organization, we’re not a prosecuting organization.”

Although the city is its biggest client, the HFSC can now hire itself out elsewhere, giving it financial independence, something the center never had when it competed for funds against other HPD divisions. Garner is even open to the possibility of offering his department’s services to criminal defendants—something that would have been anathema under the ancien régime. “We’re providing forensic services, and that can be used by both the prosecution and the defense,” he said. “It shouldn’t matter to us who it benefits—good science is good science.” 

In an overhaul this ambitious, lingering problems are probably inevitable. Last year, a quarter of all criminals exonerated nationwide were veterans of the Harris County court system. And DNA lab technician Peter Lentz resigned in March 2014 after an internal investigation concluded that he had mishandled dozens of cases. 

For all its autonomy, the HFSC is still based in the HPD’s downtown headquarters (plans are underway to move to a separate facility), and about a quarter of its staffers are HPD officers. Still, in February the HFSC celebrated a major milestone: it finally cleared its backlog of over 6,600 sexual assault kits dating back 30 years. The moment was bittersweet—the kits turned up 850 matches in the FBI’s national DNA database, leading to charges being filed belatedly against 29 individuals, including suspects who had gone on to commit at least six other rapes while the kits were languishing in an HPD evidence locker. But it also marked a moment of redemption for a lab that had once been a national disgrace. As one of the first cities in the country to eliminate its backlog, and one of the first to make its crime lab independent of the police department, Houston is now drawing a new kind of attention. 

“I think we are a model right now,” Garner said. “We know, based on conversations we’ve had with colleagues around the country, that there are a lot of people watching us. A lot of people want to see if this is a viable option.” 

Dan Garner, a forensic scientist who has helped set up crime labs around the world, was appointed the president and CEO of the HFSC in 2013.

Image: Brian Goldman

A technician from the HFSC’s firearms section fires an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle into a tank of water in order to obtain a sample bullet and casing.

Image: Brian Goldman

Ballistics experts compare the markings on the sample bullet and casing to the ones recovered at a crime scene to determine whether a particular gun was used in the crime.

Image: Brian Goldman

Darrell Stein, manager of the firearms division, stands in front of a wall used to test-fire shotgun shells.

Image: Brian Goldman

The latent prints department analyzes fingerprints lifted from objects left at a crime scene, such as a cigarette butt.

Image: Brian Goldman

Items collected at a crime scene are sometimes placed in a superglue fuming tank, which emits gaseous cyanoacrylate, a substance that bonds to the oils in a fingerprint, making it visible to the naked eye.

Image: Brian Goldman

James Miller, manager of the HFSC’s controlled substances division, with seized marijuana plants.

Image: Brian Goldman

Dozens of HPD officers work at the HFSC, with the largest concentration in the crime scene division.

Image: Brian Goldman

When a cell phone is recovered from a crime scene, technicians immediately place it in airplane mode to prevent anyone from remotely deleting potential evidence. Only after placing the phone in a Faraday box (shown), which isolates the phone from radio signals, does the digital forensics team begin to extract its data.

Image: Brian Goldman

HPD Sergeant David Hallimore, a veteran of the forensic audio/visual department, has announced his retirement after numerous disagreements with the HFSC’s civilian management over the lab’s new direction.

Image: Brian Goldman

Drug cartels often stamp bricks of cocaine and heroin with distinctive logos to brand their product, a practice that inadvertently aids the police in tracing drugs back to their sources.

Image: Brian Goldman

Last year the controlled substances section tested more than 14,000 drug samples. Crime scene technicians are on call around the clock in case a call comes in from the HPD.

Image: Brian Goldman

Vials of blood await testing by the toxicology department. When drivers refuse a breathalyzer, the HPD can obtain a warrant to draw their blood, which is then analyzed for alcohol and drug content.

Image: Brian Goldman

In 2014, the city’s crime lab, now known as the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC), became an entity separate from the Houston Police Department. HPD detectives still work in cooperation with forensic scientists, however.

Image: Brian Goldman

Digital technologies, especially smart devices and computers, have become ubiquitous tools—in the criminal world. The evolving technologies and their unique uses have led HFSC investigators like Derek Hooper, a detective in the digital forensics department, to develop methodologies to understand trends and patterns of cyber behavior. Just as with connect-the-dots, scientists will study evidence until a clear picture emerges.

Image: Brian Goldman

When crime scene investigators find or confiscate a firearm at a crime scene, HFSC personnel can test fire the weapon and analyze markings left on the bullet cartridge. Scientists can make comparisons between evidence collected—when, say, bullet casings are found at a crime scene—and the reference material produced in the lab. The HFSC uses a variety of weapons, such as the 9mm automatic pistol pictured here, for reference studies.

Image: Brian Goldman

When bullet casings are discovered at a crime scene, they can be loaded into a high-resolution scanner that accurately produces images of the cartridge. The images are loaded into IBIS, the Integrated Ballistics Identification System, which stores images and reference material from federal and state databases, as well as current and past crime investigations.

Image: Brian Goldman

High-resolution ballistic images allow investigators to precisely study how a particular gun affects a bullet cartridge. Here one can see the firing pin impression and the land and grooves caused by the gun’s extractor, the mechanism on the gun that ejects the bullet casing after the bullet is fired. By comparing images, investigators can look for ballistic matches and determine whether each bullet was fired by the same firearm.

Image: Brian Goldman

Scientists in the department of toxicology routinely test blood draws for alcohol or illegal substances.

Image: Brian Goldman

Working with recorded video and audio, investigators like Sergeant David Hallimore use tools to extract details that may otherwise be difficult to hear or see. The “cleaned” recordings are often crucial in the effort to resolve cases.

Image: Brian Goldman

The whorls found on our fingers and hands have what’s known as a friction ridge pattern. No two people have the same pattern and the patterns do not change over the course of one’s life. Investigators compare fingerprints found at a crime scene with prints taken from crime suspects, or perhaps prints found in the national database AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System). Scientists will highlight key areas on a print to delineate them for further comparison.

Image: Brian Goldman

Seized bales of marijuana. (The reference stick measures 100 cm long, or about 39 inches).

Image: Brian Goldman

 

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