Wednesday, February 14, 2018

More fun with forensics

You can change the name of the lab. You can give them fancy new wraps on their SUV's. You can move them to another building in downtown Houston.

But apparently you can't change the culture of the crime lab itself.

Megan Timlin had been with the Houston Forensic Science Center for two years up until she was fired on January 31, 2018 for shredding her original field notes in a homicide case. During a technical review of her report in that case she was asked to return to the scene to correct some "administrative errors" that had been found in her report.

She returned to the scene, took more notes, amended her report and shredded her original field notes.

Oops. That wasn't the crime lab's policy now, was it?

As a result, Ms. Timlin was fired. The forensic analysis in the case will be redone and the lab will report Ms. Timlin's actions to the Texas Forensic Science Commission as suspected professional misconduct.

According to the lab, the only case affected by Ms. Timlin's actions were the homicide case she was working on, but Ms. Timlin's work on about 100 other cases will be audited.

Okay, in the grand scheme of things, this is a fairly minor problem for the crime lab. However, those original notes were discoverable and there is now no way to determine what may have been changed from the first visit to the second visit. That could be ripe material for cross-examination down the road.

What are the odds that this is the first time Ms. Timlin - or any of the other analysts - destroyed their notes? I suppose it's possible that it had never happened before and that she was just unlucky that her transgression was discovered. But it doesn't seem likely.

Rarely is anyone caught doing something the first time they do it. And if seemingly clear lab rules are being violated with regard to retaining copies of a report, what other lab rules are being flaunted?

As we know, a crime lab is nothing more than the arm of the police  that develops evidence to support arrest decisions and supports efforts to prosecute defendants. Errors in their work can send innocent people to prison. And the problem is only exacerbated by Harris County judges who seem to think that errors in testing and administrative procedures go only to the weight of the evidence and not its admissibility.

It's a sad state of affairs when the civil courts are stricter with regard to the admissibility of scientific evidence than the criminal courts are. I guess money is that much more important in Harris County than lives.


Lee said...

Paul, Your statement of "Rarely is anyone caught doing something the first time they do it" might require some context or explanation. One would think that criminally speaking that the inexperienced or naïve would be more likely to be caught. It is the practiced experts that are difficult to catch

Billy Bob said...

We haven't heard Ms. Timlin's side of the story. Maybe she was told she could shred her notes by her supervisors because the changes were "administrative" (typos? spelling errors?) Maybe it was common unwritten practice in the lab, and she became the sacrificial analyst. If the notes had instead become "lost" (by the crime lab or perhaps the DAO), then no one (i.e. defense attorneys) would even know that the notes once existed.