In October, I wrote an article for this blog about the voluminous untested rape kits held hostage by the City of Houston. On November 2, it was reported that the City of Houston settled a case with George Rodriguez, a man who spent 17 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. Mr. Rodriguez won a lawsuit against the city and was awarded a $9 million judgment. Subsequently, the city fought the judgment and refused to pay Rodriguez. After years of fighting, the city “settled” with Rodriguez for $3 million. This case did not involve an untested rape kit. Instead, erroneous analysis by the Houston Police Department presented during the criminal trial implicated Mr. Rodriguez.
Mr. Rodriguez is not alone. Ricardo Rachelle was tried and convicted for sexual assault of a child and the victim’s sexual assault kit was never tested. Five years after the conviction, the evidence was tested and Rachelle was proven innocent.
On Wednesday, February 27, the Houston City Council will vote to appropriate the funds to send 6,600 rape kits to Virginia and Utah for analysis. While this is the beginning of a victory for Houston rape victims, it is crucial that unanswered questions regarding the quantity of evidence and quality of analysis are answered. Moreover, all individuals responsible for the horrendous decisions not to test this sensitive evidence must be identified and held accountable. And, the simple fact that the operation of the crime lab has not changed demonstrates the indifference towards justice and the rights of crime victims in our community.
So, how many bites at the apple does HPD get? After twenty years of mismanagement, city leaders have formed a local government corporation that supposedly functions as an independent crime lab. It is ironic that police personnel, including Assistant Chief Tim Oettmeier, appeared at the press conference announcing this new outsourcing program and made the presentation to the Houston City Council. Judging from appearances, it certainly looks like the police department continues to be involved in crime lab operations.
When the new, “independent” local government corporation was formed, a board was created by Annise Parker. Oddly, no forensic experts were appointed to the board. Instead, each board member has political ties to Parker or her supporters. The leader, Scott Hochberg, has absolutely no experience with scientific evidence. During his tenure in the Texas Legislature, his expertise was education. So, even with the local government corporation, nothing has truly changed at the crime lab. Good decisions are made from good information and information coming from HPD is anything but reliable. The past twenty years has proven this true.
Outsourcing evidence presents numerous logistical issues as well. As most folks who have seen Law & Order know, chain of custody is vital to the admission of evidence. Sometimes, the viability of a criminal case is dependent upon the analysis of scientific evidence. In those situations, it is vital for the lawyers to meet with potential witnesses. Unfortunately, it would be impractical for the prosecutors or the defense to travel out of state to interview these witnesses.
At trial, out of state witnesses would be required to travel to Houston to testify about the evidence analysis. Who will pay for their travel expenses? Who will pay for their testimony? Who will pay for their time? This is assuming that the two laboratories employ qualified technicians. Unfortunately, the selection of these labs was a less than transparent process; so, we, the citizens, are not afforded the opportunity to understand why these two labs were selected…especially when we have one of the world’s best crime laboratories in our backyard.
There are many longtime outstanding employees at the crime lab. Unfortunately, their great work is overshadowed by poor leadership and operational control. These crime lab employees work tirelessly to make sure that the evidence tells as much of the story as possible. For example, they review the offense report and ask questions to try to understand where recoverable evidence can be found. These dialogs are crucial to locate evidence which could be in many different locations on articles of clothing. Why and where it is located is also important to forensic analysis. Obviously, if this important work is being done by people in other states, no relationships will exist with investigators, law enforcement, or prosecutors who will have to try cases.
The Houston City Council will have an opportunity to get this right. Sending these kits out-of-state to labs to do this work maybe expedient but will it net the results the public needs? The purpose of analyzing the kits should be to free the innocent in prison, identify serial offenders, and producing quality evidence that can be used in effective investigations and successful prosecutions. The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences is managed by scientists and medical doctors. This is who tests the rape kits for Harris County. Harris County has no backlog of rape kits and has never been sued for gross negligence. The policy in Harris County has always been to test every rape kit immediately when it comes into their office. Deciding which rape kits to test was never an issue at the county. The Institute should be afforded the opportunity to make a proposal on this work. HPD needs to butt out and realize that twenty years of malfeasance has made Houston a dangerous place. Let’s not forget the case of the serial rapist whose rape kits sit in the crime lab.