Backlog exists, but improvements made at HPD's crime lab

January 13, 2011 5:08:29 PM PST
It's been over nine years since Eyewitness News first told you about a shocking backlog of rape kits. The crucial evidence had been shelved for years while victims waited anxiously for justice. A new grant may finally help put a dent in the thousands of cases still pending. Houston's DNA Crime Lab has experienced a significant turnaround over the past few years, but still to this day, thousands of rape kits remain untested. The reason is a lack of money.

For the first time in a long time, city leaders say they have confidence in the overall work that's being done at HPD's crime lab. While they acknowledged that significant progress is being made, they had plenty of questions about the backlog of rape kits and whether the lab will ever get caught up.

With a backlog of more than 4,200 rape kits, it's no secret HPD's crime lab has struggled to meet the increasing demand for DNA testing.

"Do you have any sense at the rate we're going, how long it would take us to get to zero?" asked Council Member Melissa Noriega.

At Thursday's presentation, crime lab administrators fielded questions from city leaders concerned about whether the increasing case load can be managed with current backlog. Last year, 78 new DNA cases came into the crime lab each month.

"Our goal is to get to zero. Make no question about that. We want to do the very best we can to process evidence as quickly and timely as needed," said Exec. Asst. Chief Tim Oettmeier of the Houston Police Department.

Officials acknowledged with no concrete solution at hand, coupled with the city's budget shortfall, moving forward will be a challenge. So far, more than $1 million has already been secured to hire 10 additional staff to process 2,300 cases over the next year.

"There's some good news and there's some bad news, but it means a great deal to have a clear picture of what's going on," said Noriega.

Outsourcing is an option the city says it can no longer afford. Sending out just one case with extensive DNA evidence costs as much as $10,000.

"We just cannot continue this pattern long term. We've been at it long enough," said Council Member Ed Gonzalez.

While the calls for an independent, regional crime lab are getting louder, crime lab administrators say it's a complicated issue that involves more than just the city of Houston.

"Yes, we are working on it. We're doing it as diligently, as quickly, but we want to make sure that we do the right thing for the city of Houston," Chief Oettmeier said.

HPD has sent some of its toxicology cases to the crime lab in the Woodlands which is run by Sam Houston State University. That's been a big help. But that lab doesn't do DNA testing and outsourcing those cases is expensive.