Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Stop me if you've heard this before...

It seems that no matter how hard it tries, the Houston Police Department Crime Lab just can't keep itself out of the news. Peter Lentz worked as an analyst at the crime lab from 2012 until earlier this year when he resigned - after he was caught lying, using improper procedures and tampering with a government document.


In every case in which an analyst testifies - from DWI cases to capital murder cases - the testimony reveals that the crime lab was certified by ASCLD and by the Texas Department of Public Safety. This testimony is supposed to convince jurors that the test results are accurate. Yet somehow the parade of problems continues.

Mr. Lentz worked on 185 cases, including 51 capital murder cases. The Harris County District Attorney's Office did send out a letter notifying defense attorneys about the issue after it arose as they should. In many of these cases there is still material that can be retested. However, the fact that Mr. Lentz was able to do what he did as long as he did it should raise serious questions about oversight at the HPD Crime Lab.

If the lab can pass its annual audits year after year but we still have problems with analysts making shit up, then there is something wrong with the audit process. Too much of the audit consists of a supervisor reviewing a file and signing off on the test results if all the paperwork is in order. There is no random retesting of material.

The list of past sins at the crime lab is well known in criminal defense circles. The lab has undergone numerous re-openings, re-toolings and re-marketing campaigns over the years. Nothing works. The culture at the crime lab is still - and seemingly always will be - to produce the best possible evidence for the government.

Because the mission of the crime lab is to assist the government in prosecuting cases, lab managers will never probe into the actual testing of material. What purpose would that serve? So long as the test results that come from 1201 Travis help prosecutors obtain convictions there is no reason for managers to do more oversight into the lab's operations.

While the misdeeds of Mr. Lentz only directly affect those cases on which he worked, the stench should cover each and every test result that comes from the HPD Crime Lab. When a culture is so ingrained in an institution that we keep coming across these stories year after year, that culture affects everyone who works in the crime lab.

As a postscript to the story, the Harris County District Attorney's Office presented evidence of Mr. Lentz' misdeeds to a grand jury that declined to indict the former analyst. My question is why was Devon Anderson's office allowed to present that case to the grand jury when almost every test conducted in the HPD Crime Lab (if not every test) is produced for the DA's Office?

There is a clear conflict of interest in allowing the Harris County DA's Office to investigate this matter. Ms. Anderson's office has an incentive not to prosecute Mr. Lentz as such a prosecution could put into question every test conducted at the HPD Crime Lab. By sweeping the matter under the rug, the DA's Office can pretend that Mr. Lentz was a "lone wolf" and that his actions aren't an indictment on the entire crime lab.

1 comment:

Lee said...

Fox guarding henhouse?