Friday, September 26, 2008

A couple of random thoughts

The Detroit Police Crime Lab has been shuttered after the Michigan State Police exposed serious problems with the firearms lab.  Detroit's lab is not the first to be shut down and won't be the last. The fundamental problems facing police-sponsored crime labs are the same from city to city and state to state.  These crime labs aren't meant to carry out fact-finding missions; as arms of the police department, the role of these labs is to produce evidence that can be used to convict citizens for criminal acts.  As such, once a suspect is in custody there is pressure to produce evidence that will lead to his conviction.  This means that any uncertainties that might result from the analysis are not resolved in the accused's favor.  Could this be why when a third party conducts an audit the error rates in police-sponsored crime labs fall outside the norm of acceptable lab work?

This past week the Harris County Commissioner's Court met to discuss a proposed public defender office in Harris County.  Complaints about the expense of the current appointment system and favoritism are being used as justification for the office.  However, the public defender office would be under the control of Commissioner's Court which means the attorneys working in the office would be serving two masters: their clients, the defendants, and the State - the same State that would be trying to restrict the freedom and liberty of their clients.  The State can, thus, pressure public defenders to plead out their cases by threatening to reduce funding and increase case loads.  The better option may be to create an Office of Indigent Defense and have that office manage a wheel system that assigns attorneys randomly to represent those citizens who the courts determine are indigent.  This would, at least, take the power to appoint attorneys out of the hands of the judges.

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