Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Texas Forensic Science Commission releases details about allegations of critical lapses at crime labs

Allegations of critical lapses at Texas crime labs, including one of the state’s most vaunted facilities, were among a dozen complaints reported to the Texas Forensic Science Commission and made public this week by the fledgling state agency that investigates misconduct by the forensic science community.

An ex-employee at the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences complained about tainted rape kits, blood stock and DNA analysis at the Dallas crime lab.

"This allegation represents what is valuable about the commission’s work to the people of Texas," said Stephen Saloom, policy director of the Innocence Project in New York.

But officials with the institute say that the allegations are false and that the whistle-blower was fired for poor performance. The ex-employee has sued the county for wrongful termination. At one point, county officials said, the whistle-blower offered to retract his complaint and settle the case for $250,000.

"He could not pass the training program for a forensic scientist," said David Alex, administrative chief in the Dallas County district attorney’s office. "The allegations he was lodging were unfounded primarily because he was not even qualified to make those allegations."

The complaints released this week were filed with the commission over a two-year period.

Copies were released after the Texas attorney general’s office said they had to be made public in response to a Public Information Act request from the Star-Telegram.

Most surprising to the North Texas criminal justice community was criticism of the institute and its chief of physical evidence, Tim Sliter, who was a panelist at legislative hearings that drew attention to debacles at the Houston Crime Lab in 2005.

"SWIFS has a good reputation," said Gary Udashen, a criminal defense attorney in Dallas. "If it’s true, there are all kinds of problems. I guess everybody just thought SWIFS was a cut above your average lab."

Sliter did not return repeated requests for comment.

Dr. Jeffrey Barnard, the Dallas County medical examiner who oversees the crime lab, also did not return phone calls.

The complaint was filed anonymously early last year with the state commission. The Dallas County district attorney’s office rebutted each allegation made in the complaint in its response filed with the commission and made available to the Star-Telegram.

Dallas County said former employee Chris Nulf made the complaint. In his lawsuit against the county, Nulf alleges that he was fired for making a complaint to the commission. Nulf’s attorney, Raul Loya, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Alex said that Nulf did not follow grievance procedures before filing his lawsuit.

In the complaint to the commission, the complainant said he "exhausted all possibilities" to resolve issues in the lab before he turned to filing a complaint.

He said his concerns to supervisors fell on deaf ears, documents show.

"Supervisors have chosen to either forget or disregard concerns that have been reported, or they have not taken corrective actions in an expeditious and timely manner," he wrote. "Therefore, I am seeking advice from an external higher authority."

The complaint alleged that the lab uses inaccurate and outdated serology procedures. It also raised questions about blood and semen coding, stocking and labeling; evidence examination sheets and interpretation of lab results; analyses using expired chemicals; and compromised security of data.

Alex said that the institute looked into the complaints and found them to be wrong. For example, an instrument alleged to be out of calibration was not, according to the institute.

Commission Chairman John Bradley wrote in an e-mail that the commission would take action on "pending cases" and complaints "once it has adopted a process for conducting business."

"There are currently no written policies or procedures," he wrote. "I am not aware of any state agency that operates without a single written procedure."

Bradley became the commission’s chairman last year when Gov. Rick Perry replaced four of the body’s members just as the group was embarking on an inquiry into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for setting a house fire in Corsicana that killed his three daughters.

The commission looked into two of the complaints it received from the Innocence Project.

The other complaints were filed by prison inmates or their relatives. One involved a 1919 murder. Complaints were also filed about crime labs in Fort Worth, Houston and Austin.

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