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."
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."
||Truth in Justice