Houston Chronicle

Feb. 21, 2008
Problems persisted at reformed crime lab
DNA division called 'out of control' before it closed for a second time

By ROMA KHANNA
Months before the troubled Houston crime lab shuttered its DNA division for a second time (on January 24, 2008), analysts and a supervisor warned investigators of continuing problems, including contamination, questionable procedures, and lost evidence, according to a police investigative report obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

So serious were the issues that DNA section leader Vanessa Nelson described the division as "clearly out of control." She told Houston Police Department internal affairs officers to consider halting DNA testing altogether in September — four months before police management made the move to close it.

"Since August 21, the section has reported a sample switch, lost evidence, lost paperwork and two incidences of contamination," Nelson told internal investigators Sept. 8. "Analyst morale is at an all-time low, and I question whether or not the section should suspend testing until the entire issue is resolved."

Her comments and others in the 73-page investigative report belie the image of a rehabilitated crime lab at a time when the department was trying to restore public confidence in its work.

Mired in controversy
Since the 2002 exposure of shoddy work and poorly trained personnel, HPD's crime lab has been mired in a forensics controversy that has cast doubt on thousands of cases and led to the exoneration of three men convicted with faulty evidence.
 
Irma Rios, HPD's crime lab director, described the most recent troubles as the sort of growing pains expected with the total reinvention of the DNA division. She stressed that each problem has been addressed, with additional training, new procedures and a thorough cleaning of the lab to prevent contamination.

"We need to look at the time when these statements were made," she said. "The (internal) investigation had begun and that added to tension in the lab. We take allegations very seriously and respond appropriately."

The internal affairs investigation started in response to allegations that Nelson and two midlevel supervisors had improperly coached DNA analysts on a routine skills test in August.  Investigators concluded managers indeed had discussed the proficiency test, in violation of policy, and recommended that Nelson and a midlevel manager be fired.

Nelson resigned in January to avoid termination, and the Texas Department of Public Safety hired her to lead the DNA division of its McAllen crime lab. Attempts to reach her Thursday were unsuccessful. Nelson's departure left Houston's DNA division without a supervisor and forced HPD to suspend DNA testing for the second time in six years.

In the course of investigating the cheating allegations, Nelson and others in the DNA division told officers of other troubles at the lab, including attempts to misrepresent the chain of custody on an evidence sample and orders for analysts to do work they were not trained to perform.

Low morale, confusion
The analysts' comments depict a DNA division far different from that police management described as reformed and poised for excellence in 2006 after it earned national accreditation for the first time and resumed DNA testing after an interruption of more than three years.

Houston Crime Lab Report
Full text of investigative report (pdf format)

TROUBLES MOUNT

Months before the Houston Police Department shut down its DNA division for the second time, analysts warned of problems.

Aug. 7: DNA division manager coaches analysts on skills test.
Aug. 9: An analyst voices her concerns to the quality assurance manager.
Aug. 24: Top police management become aware of the cheating allegations and an investigation is launched.
Jan. 24: HPD shuts down its DNA division for the second time.
In statements to investigators, analysts described low morale, confusion about how to raise complaints, and fears that their concerns would be '"swept under the rug," according to the investigative report.

The analyst who lodged the cheating complaint, Yukiko "Jay" Agnew-Phillips, detailed conversations in early August in which Nelson and two midlevel managers openly discussed the skills test and told analysts how to handle specific questions on the test.

Agnew-Phillips, who since resigned from the crime lab, said she was "extremely disturbed by recent events" and noted that it took weeks from when she first voiced concerns about the proficiency tests for lab management to hear about the incident.

She also described an August incident in which a fellow analyst attempted to recreate lost paperwork detailing the custody of evidence samples.

"I'm pretty sure we are not supposed to be re-creating the chain of custody and pretending like we didn't lose it," she said she told the analyst.

Later, the lab's quality control manager instructed the analyst to report the loss of the original paperwork.

Other analysts echoed her comments.

"I actually could not believe that the test was being discussed," one told investigators about the proficiency test incident.

"I was torn by my feelings, also about not saying anything about how I felt, but I did not know how to go about bringing the matter up or who to bring it up to."

Hard to concentrate
Perhaps the most serious concerns were raised by Nelson herself.

She told investigators that resentment and tension amongst the analysts jeopardized work and threatened the DNA division's ability to accurately process cases.

"The analysts in the section are clearly out of control and they will succeed in destroying the lab we worked so hard to create if they proceed on their current course," Nelson's statement says. "No one in the section is able to concentrate on the analysis of evidence because of what is going on."

Rios, the crime lab's director, told the Chronicle that because of the issues raised by analysts, particularly those about contamination, HPD halted DNA testing for two weeks in September to do a deep cleaning of the lab and also implemented new procedures.

"We did an intense cleaning of the lab," she said. "We have not had a single incident of contamination since. Each of the concerns that were raised was addressed."

roma.khanna@chron.com


Junk Science
Truth in Justice