Sept. 7, 2003
DNA lab analysts unqualified
Review finds education, training lacking
Houston Chronicle By Lise Olsen and Roma Khanna
None of the analysts who worked in the Houston Police Department's discredited DNA lab were qualified by education and training to do their jobs, based on national standards and a Houston Chronicle review of their personnel files.
Only one of the lab's DNA analysts had completed all the required college courses, which include statistics, genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology, mandated by the DNA Advisory Board Quality Assurance Standards. And none of the 11 employees had sufficient formal training to meet those standards, which Texas law requires all crime labs to meet by 2004.
Nor were the analysts regularly tested to see if they had mastered skills learned from their colleagues in the lab's informal and undocumented peer-mentoring program.
Widespread problems prompted the closure of the DNA lab in December and the review of hundreds of cases processed there. To date, 49 cases have been retested and significant problems have been found in 13. The city plans to reopen the DNA lab next year but has not said whether it will retain the same employees.
All but one of the employees in the DNA section remain on the city payroll, though the DNA analysts are being retrained to perform other lab duties. Serologists, who prepare evidence for DNA testing, are still doing that work, though the DNA tests are now being conducted by an outside lab.
The founder and former head of the DNA section, James Bolding, retired in June after the police chief recommended he be fired. Bolding himself did not meet the standards for the job. Among other things, he failed both algebra and geometry in college, though he later passed both, and he never took statistics.
A knowledge of statistics is vital to understanding and explaining the significance of DNA tests. Statistical errors have been cited repeatedly in reviews of the lab's work, as analysts often overstated the significance of their findings.
In one of the lab's most infamous cases, analyst Christy Kim made two mistakes that helped convict teenager Josiah Sutton of rape. He was released four years later when the mistakes were discovered. Kim had improperly analyzed a semen sample that would have excluded Sutton as one of the two rapists, then badly miscalculated the odds that his DNA could have matched the sample by mere chance.
So far, similar statistical errors have been found in three of Kim's other cases.
None of the analysts who still work at HPD would discuss the Houston Chronicle's findings. Most said they wanted to talk, but cited a fear of losing their jobs and an admonition from the department not to discuss the lab while its work is being investigated.
An examination by the Chronicle of school transcripts, training and discipline records in the files of six senior employees in the DNA division found a variety of educational and training deficiencies:
· Bolding, the DNA lab founder, has bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from Texas Southern University but was academically dismissed from the University of Texas Ph.D. program.
Independent auditors from the Department of Public Safety and Tarrant County found in 2002 that Bolding was not qualified to be supervisor, nor could he be accredited as a DNA analyst because he has not taken statistics.
Bolding declined to talk about his dismissal from UT but said he had taken a statistics seminar through a forensic science group that he thought covered the requirement.
· Baldev Sharma, former DNA section supervisor and current head of quality control, has master's and Ph.D.-equivalent degrees in chemistry. Though his college transcripts are not in city files, an internal HPD memo said he had failed proficiency tests and therefore did not qualify for his position as quality-control supervisor.
He was suspended for five days in 1997 for mismanagement of the DNA section, but earned a promotion to quality control and was put in charge of getting the lab accredited.
· Mary Childs-Henry has bachelor's and master's degrees in biology but never took statistics or genetics, according to transcripts in her file. She has never been disciplined, but her failure to do a timely analysis of a DNA sample in 1996 was part of a chain of lab errors that allowed an innocent man to be held in jail for nine months, according to depositions and an internal memo. Two lawsuits were filed in connection with that incident, which prompted the city to audit the lab.
Childs-Henry once testified that she was certified by the Association of Forensic DNA Analysts and Administrators, which does not certify scientists. She also said in a deposition that she had a master's degree in molecular biology, instead of biology.
· Joseph Chu has a bachelor's in botany and a master's in chemistry and is the only DNA analyst who has taken all the required college courses. He was suspended in June for 14 days after several errors were found in four separate cases, including a capital murder case. Those errors included incorrect statistics presented in court, mix-ups of evidence and a lack of documentation. Chu once falsely stated in a deposition that his degree was in molecular biology.
· Sheila Dixon Tarver, a serologist with a master's degree in chemistry whose job is to prepare biological samples for DNA testing, was cited in her 2003 performance review for making errors. Another analyst, Jennifer LaCoss, who resigned to work for the Austin Police Department, told HPD's internal affairs division that she "wasn't really comfortable with (Tarver's) work," according to a transcript from a March 2003 interview with an internal affairs investigator.
"We needed to get her out of there," LaCoss told the investigator. "There was just several times when little things would come up that she should have done better. I'd have to go back and really clarify things with her -- make sure things hadn't been screwed up."
Tarver has never been disciplined, though supervisors eventually arranged her transfer to another division within the crime lab.
· Kim, a long-term DNA analyst first hired as criminalist in 1989, has a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Houston but has not taken statistics, according to the transcript in her file. She was suspended for 14 days in June after numerous lab errors were exposed in four cases. But she has not been disciplined for errors that led to Sutton's conviction.
Dr. Joseph Matthew, who worked in the lab until 1997, when he became head of the Harris County crime lab's DNA section, said he felt it would be very hard for anyone to unlearn all the incorrect practices and procedures common in the HPD lab.
"Honestly, I feel it is better to start from scratch with a different team of people," said Matthew, who helped the county earn accreditation and hire a new staff six years ago.
Another problem, said William C. Thompson, a professor at the University of California-Irvine who helped expose some of HPD's lab errors, is that those mistakes and the lies in court cases will destroy the former employees' credibility as witnesses.
"These people were so far behind professional developments in their field it's absurd," he said. "If they were so far out of it for that many years, can we retrain them? Well, there's room for doubt."
The founder of the DNA lab disagrees. Bolding said he believed most analysts could eventually meet the standards, though the current scandal may prove insurmountable.
Bolding also worries that HPD's command staff will never make the crime lab a priority.
"A lack of support from the department got us to where we are," Bolding said. "Unless the management style of HPD changes, the crime lab will not be fixed. It needs to be moved outside the department."
Troubled from the start
In 1989, when Bolding, then a criminalist with 10 years of experience, began planning a DNA lab for HPD, it was a shoestring operation. The city only gave him $150 for a rental car toward his costs of attending an FBI academy course on DNA analysis.
"We began to develop a lab at my request because I knew DNA was the future," Bolding said. "The people in (the) department did not understand it or its importance."
Financial support never really improved. The city did not buy a single piece of equipment for the DNA division. It was outfitted with money from grants, which also funded some of the relatively low salaries paid to analysts. When equipment broke down, one of the forensic scientists often was tapped to fix it. When the roof leaked, the city failed to repair it for years.
The lab's funding scheme was called a "bad idea" and "poor planning" by a scientist with the National Forensic Science Technology Center, which HPD has hired to move the lab toward accreditation.
"It was swimming upstream all the way," Bolding said. "We were in a situation where if the federal government did not pay for equipment or education, we went without."
To help him set up the DNA section, Bolding tapped Sharma, a new staffer with little forensic experience but an impressive academic resume. Sharma held a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Delhi and had done postdoctoral work at two U.S. universities.
Within six years, however, the two men were feuding bitterly, filing formal internal complaints against one another and blaming each other for lab problems.
Those problems first became public in 1996, when it was revealed that an innocent man had been held nine months in jail while the lab sat on DNA evidence that would have cleared him.
Lynn Jones, then 38, had been accused of raping a 14-year-old girl, who disappeared shortly after accusing him. Arrested in January 1996, Jones was branded a child molester and forced to wear a special armband.
A DNA test can be run in a matter of days, but Jones remained in jail for months, despite repeated inquiries about the case from the district attorney's office.
Even before the scandal broke, Sharma, the DNA section supervisor, had written a memo to Bolding, his boss, accusing him of hiring an unqualified employee and protecting another who was a slacker. Both were involved in the Jones case.
The first, serologist Tarver, got the case on Feb. 8, 1996, but failed to classify it as urgent and did not transfer it to a DNA analyst until July, according to depositions filed in a related civil case.
The other employee, longtime DNA analyst Childs-Henry, had taken far too much time to analyze the evidence that would clear Jones, Sharma said in the memo. Childs-Henry had the sample from July until late September. She was unable to get a result, whereupon she transferred it to yet another analyst, who in October performed another type of DNA test that ruled Jones out.
Sharma added in his memo that such delays were not unusual for Childs-Henry.
According to a log Sharma kept of her cases from 1995 to 1997, Childs-Henry regularly took nine to 10 months to process cases. Sharma said the type of analysis Childs-Henry did could routinely be completed in three weeks, according to a deposition. Sharma complained that Childs-Henry also refused to accept some cases but was protected by Bolding.
Bolding, however, blamed Sharma, who was then supervisor of the DNA section. And every member of Sharma's staff except one took Bolding's side in the dispute. Six later signed a letter in September 1999 that called Sharma's supervision of the DNA section a "total disaster."
"To date, the Serology/DNA is still paying the consequences as a result of Mr. Sharma's action," the letter read.
In the end, only Sharma was punished, with a five-day suspension in May 1997. A few months later, Sharma, accused by Bolding of sloppy and negligent management, became chief of quality control. He was put in charge of preparing the lab to meet accreditation -- which it has not attained, partly because of personnel and budgeting constraints -- and the DNA section has not had a direct supervisor since then.
The files indicate Bolding paid scant attention to performance reviews. For years, virtually everyone received the same kind of vague remarks, such as "error free" and "uses good grammar."
Bolding said he was overworked just keeping the lab going on a daily basis and had little time to devote to reviews.
Jones sued the city but lost, in part because his lawyer was unable to prove in 2000 that the crime lab had a pattern of mishandling cases. For helping fend off Jones' lawsuit, Bolding received a letter of appreciation from Assistant City Attorney Elizabeth Ferrell-Montalvo: "Much of this success is due, in large part, to the supervisor of the DNA crime lab, Mr. Jim Bolding and his hard work."
Inadequate pay, training
For the last 10 years, the DNA lab has hired employees with degrees for less than $30,000, records show. Two of the DNA lab's most recent hires, in 2000, were paid $30,500 and $31,500 to start. One of them, LaCoss, had a master's degree.
But a city personnel office said that if the lab were to hire someone now, the starting salary offered to a beginning criminalist would be higher -- $35,315, though one lab employee with 10 years of experience, Dixon Tarver, currently earns only $36,500.
The state crime lab currently pays a beginning analyst a minimum of $37,800.
"We were not able to attract individuals who had higher degrees or people who met standards because we did not have salaries commensurate with that kind of experience," Bolding said.
Two of the most qualified analysts the lab hired did not stay long.
Matthew, the only DNA analyst hired besides Sharma who held a Ph.D., left to work for Harris County in 1997, after only two years. LaCoss, who held a master's degree in forensic science and was praised by her bosses for helping improve the lab, quit after 18 months, leaving a resignation note that blamed the salary, a long backlog of untested rape kits and office conditions that were "more suited for condemnation rather than a place where sensitive scientific procedures are carried out."
Unable to attract and retain qualified employees, Bolding said he instead had to recruit people already working in other sections of the crime lab or other city departments whom he believed could be trained. But, he said, there were no funds for the necessary training or college coursework.
For entry-level jobs in the DNA section, the city required no experience, only a bachelor's degree in biology, molecular biology, biochemistry, genetics "or a related field." But jobs were sometimes given to graduates with other degrees, such as chemistry and zoology. In addition to the six senior staffers, others hired to do DNA tests or prepare samples for testing were:
· Two workers from the city zoo, one who had most recently been cleaning the elephants' cages. Both had degrees -- one in zoology, the other in biology. The biology major, Juli Blitchington, also had done DNA research, but only on insects.
Blitchington was later reprimanded for misconduct for failing to properly inventory 202 kilos of cocaine brought in as evidence. Two kilos could not be located later.
· Transfers with science degrees from other city departments, including an air pollution monitor. All could have been retrained, Bolding insists, but there was no money for it.
· A woman who had flunked out of college after failing several science classes, though she eventually earned a degree. One other DNA analyst also flunked basic science classes.
Chu was hired in 1989 despite a former employer's comment that he "has difficulty in speaking English." In his application, Chu wrote: "I have skilled several equipments" and " I have experience in testing animal and sacrificing them."
Over the next few years, his supervisors rated him poorly for communication, a serious handicap when testifying.
Despite his problems, Chu took on management responsibilities in the lab, training others and fixing equipment.
Several times over the years, Libby Johnson, former head of the Harris County DNA lab, said she pointed out errors to Chu, but he refused to correct them. Johnson saw Chu's work because she sometimes reviewed HPD cases and also talked to him at professional meetings.
"They were teaching each other bad habits and calling it `on-the-job training,' " she said. "They were criminal in their ignorance."
||Truth in Justice