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Volume 68, Issue 126, Friday, April 4, 2003


Staff Editorial


Matthew Dulin    Geronimo Rodriguez      Cara Sarelli          Lisa Street

DNA foray

When an independent auditing team investigated the Houston Police Departmentis crime lab last December, it found a lot of things that didnit look quite right.

A leaking roof, questionable science and poorly trained personnel were among the marks against the crime lab, and in its wisest move yet, HPD shut down the DNA division of the crime lab.

DNA has become the ultimate evidence of guilt in murder and rape cases. If you were there, your body left some DNA behind, and forensic scientists are skilled at finding it. From hair to skin cells, suspects are being convicted on tiny pieces of extremely crucial evidence.

Such evidence -- such power -- needs extreme oversight. Itis not something to be taken lightly.

HPD Chief C.O. Bradford proposed Wednesday that an independent agency should be established to analyze DNA evidence. Bradford suggested a regional public lab, or perhaps a privately operated lab.

While this would help clear HPDis name and put another agency on the hot seat, it would also help ensure that evidence is fairly studied and evaluated -- certainly a praiseworthy attribute. Neutrality would ensure objectivity.

However, as one FBI scientist told the Houston Chronicle, while separating crime labs from police departments might be a move towards objectivity, it wonit necessarily guarantee clean work.

Quality of the work being done wonit be maintained simply because an outside agency is handling the evidence. Regular internal audits and perhaps state-level oversight of such agencies would be needed to maintain a high standard of work. 

HPD is in a bind, but the bright side is, its pitfalls have opened up national debate about the work of crime labs when evaluating DNA, especially in states where death-row inmates were convicted with the testimony of a forensic scientist.

Science is the best tool to evaluate evidence, but science is human and thus inherently subject to error. Redundancy is one way of avoiding errors; perhaps DNA testing could be a conjunctive effort by multiple independent labs for verification. 

When lives -- when the ideals of justice -- are at stake, we canit ask for less.
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