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Investing in Quality Control:

The Houston Forensic Science Center

             In 2003, a DNA test exonerated George Rodriquez, who had been convicted based on testimony by an examiner from the Houston Police Crime Lab.  In 2002, just before Rodriguez sought this DNA testing, journalists uncovered errors in the Houston lab DNA unit’s work. A man named Josiah Sutton, convicted of rape and kidnapping based on DNA test results, had spent four and a half years in prison. Blatant errors were uncovered in Sutton’s case, too.  The lab was closed.  A 2003 New York Times headline asked whether Houston had “the Worst Crime Laboratory in the Country.” 

             To their credit, the County ordered a comprehensive audit of the crime lab by an entire team of lawyers and forensic scientists.  The lab, reopened in 2014 and renamed the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC), is now run by scientists, headed by Peter Stout.   Stout had a different vision for a crime lab: not just independence, but also constant oversight and quality control.  Stout created a quality division with seven people whose full-time jobs are to prevent and detect errors in the lab.  

             A new blind proficiency testing program was created: five percent of all cases in the lab are in fact a test, where answers can be checked to detect errors.  All of the analysts at the lab know that any case that they work on might be a test, across all of the seven disciplines: toxicology, con- trolled substances, digital evidence, DNA, firearms, toolmarks, and latent prints.  

             All of this quality control is costly, but as Peter Stout points out, so are errors.  George Rodriguez brought a civil rights case, and received about $4 million from the in compensation. That would pay for years of quality control at even a large lab like HFSC.

             Some states have required that their labs be accredited, but the most important thing to understand is this: accreditation is good but it is no substitute for quality control.  Accreditation should be required but it is not enough – and alone, it is highly inadequate. What is accreditation? It is review by a professional body that mostly focuses on paper: the written policies that a lab adopts.  That is a great start.  Nearly nine in ten (88%) of the nation’s 409 publicly funded forensic crime laboratories were accredited by a professional science organization in 2014.  Accreditation is a good step to ensure minimal standards are being met, at least in the procedures and management systems adopted in a laboratory. However, accreditation does not ensure that valid methods are used. It does not ensure that reliable and consistent casework is being done. Accreditation is not sufficient to ensure that adequate quality controls and standards are followed in a crime laboratory.

             The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a worldwide federation of standard-setting groups, and it develops detailed requirements for quality controls, including in laboratories. When there are complaints, or errors occur, or there is nonconforming work, the ISO requires that a lab must “take action to control and correct” the problem or “address the consequences,” and do so “as applicable.” That language does not create clear responsibilities. When people may be in prison due to past errors or “nonconforming” work, then labs should have ethical obligations to do far more. They must notify all of the people potentially harmed and notify the courts. Then they should review and correct any potential errors. 

             The American Bar Association (ABA) has called for “demanding written examinations, proficiency testing, continuing education, recertification procedures, an ethical code, and effective disciplinary procedures” for all forensic analysts. Other countries also adopt more serious oversight of forensic labs.  In Ontario, Canada, the Centre of Forensic Sciences (CFS) supplements the required proficiency tests with an in-house program of blind proficiency testing managed by the CFS Quality Assurance unit.