13 Investigates Houston's forensics backlog as DA Ogg calls for more outsourcing

Tuesday, October 17, 2023
13 Investigates Houston forensics as DA calls for more outsourcing
13 Investigates proposed solutions and what's being done to process thousands of pieces of evidence backlogged at the Houston Forensic Science Center.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Firearms examiners at the Houston Forensic Science Center spend two years in on-the-job training before taking on a case of their own to help with the backlog of evidence at the city's crime lab.

"Firearms examiners have to know the history of ammunition manufacturing, the history of firearms manufacturing, how to assemble and disassemble a whole bunch of different types of firearms," Donna Eudaley, manager of the Center's firearms section, told 13 Investigates. "Then we get into the actual practice of ... looking at two items at the same time to determine if they were fired in the same firearm. That takes a lot of hands-on practical experience to be able to do that accurately."

Eudaley said meticulously analyzing evidence is time-consuming, and to make it worse, there simply aren't enough employees and hours in the day to get rid of their backlog overnight.

"We have to be very detail-oriented, so it takes time to work a case to completion. If we don't take our time, we're going to get the wrong answer, and that doesn't help society," she said.

Dr. Peter Stout, President of the Houston Forensic Science Center, said the crime lab is making progress with its backlog, which includes cases that have waited 30 or more days to be analyzed.

Currently, there are 304 firearms backlogged with the center, and the turnaround time to analyze a firearm is 270 days. There are 1,600 seized drugs backlogged at the center, with a turnaround time of 83 days.

Stout said without additional staffing, it is difficult to eliminate the backlog completely. Ideally, he said the lab would have 10 firearms analysts and 12 narcotics analysts to be fully staffed.

Right now, they have half of that, with five firearms examiners and six narcotics analysts. He said they do have some analysts in training, but that means taking the current workers away from the lab.

"If I bring in too many people all at once, I could cripple the section's ability to do casework because they're all training the new people, so we can only bring them in so fast in order to be able to train," Stout said.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has called on the science center to outsource cases to help with the backlog, saying prosecutors need the evidence analyzed to do their jobs successfully.

"We live in a time when almost every crime can be solved. That's remarkable. That's through the advancement of science and technology, and so to simply not fund it, not outsource it, not deal with it, is to walk away from the responsibility that the City of Houston has to its residents," Ogg said.

There are currently 33,546 active pending felony cases in the Harris County courts system.

Ogg said some cases are delayed because the crime lab can't keep up with demands for testing.

"When our hands are tied because the police department's lab is not functioning appropriately, it just creates dysfunction in the court," Ogg said. "The city simply needs to do their job, support their police department whose men and women are going out every day to investigate these cases. They're arresting dangerous people, and they've got a lab that can't support the case prosecution. It just doesn't make sense to me."

In a statement, the Houston Forensic Science Center said it has been outsourcing DNA and toxicology and will start outsourcing some seized drug evidence.

"The Houston Forensic Science Center is ultimately responsible for the integrity of all evidence. We have in-depth quality controls embedded in our procedures and exercise extreme caution. While it is a great idea to outsource to private and other labs, it is much more challenging than it sounds," the center said in a statement.

When it comes to firearms, the center said other labs across the state are also facing backlogs and outsourcing is cost prohibitive because it means the city will have to pay for the out-of-town analysts to attend court proceedings.

"It is not just the testing but then the expert will have to travel to our city for testimony and to attend trials. All those costs must be covered," the center said in a statement. "Our budget is set by the Houston City Council. We have received some additional funding when it is available. However, we have to live within the budget we are provided."

In a statement, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner's office said the city has provided the lab with "substantial resources," including $300,000 in overtime funding, $400,000 to outsource toxicology cases, $600,000 to outsource digital media, such as cellphones, and at least $2 million for extensive training for new employees.

Still, Ogg said if the city's crime lab doesn't keep up with demands, she is worried prosecutors will be faced to try before evidence can be analyzed.

"The suffering of crime victims waiting for justice is immeasurable, and the toll it takes on prosecutors and police who have to deliver bad news like the city hasn't outsourced your evidence and we're going to have to wait another six months, year, two years is just unbearable, and I don't want us to do it anymore," Ogg said.

SEE ALSO: HPDU calls for forensic center president to resign

Stout said the center is just one part of the larger criminal justice system, so that blame is "oversimplified."

"Fundamentally, these are people's lives and liberty at the other end of it, whether they're a defendant or whether they're a victim. We all need to be working with the resources that we have across the entire system on how we solve things for those people at the other end of this," Stout said. "No single component of the criminal justice system is solely responsible for all of the backlog. We each have components in it."

While Stout said he's hopeful the narcotics backlog will go down by the end of the year and the firearms backlog will improve next year, he is concerned about how the pandemic-era surge in crime will impact his team.

Right now, Stout said most of the homicide cases the lab's firearms teams is working on are for incidents that occurred from 2018 to 2020.

But, Houston saw an increase in murders in 2022, with more than 400 homicides that year alone. Stout said many of those cases have not gone to trial, which means once the court systems backlog starts addressing those more recent homicides, it will create more work for his team and contribute to their backlog.

Ogg said before 2020, it took anywhere from a year to three and a half years for a serious felony to go to trial. Now, she said it takes anywhere from four to six years for murder cases to go to trial.

"This particular problem, self-inflicted at the city government level, is not just impacting the families of murder victims and rape victims, but because there are 900-plus (accused) murderers at large or on bail in our general population, it affects everybody," Ogg said. "We literally have a small town of accused murderers free within our population of law-abiding citizens. That ought to be a concern to everybody."

SEE ALSO: Law prioritizing murder cases in court worrisome for prosecutors, DA's Office says

When it comes to firearms analysis for homicide cases, Stout said a single case could take 350 hours to complete, especially if more than one bullet was recovered from the victim's body.

Stout said he feels the pressure to make sure the lab's part of the criminal justice system moves swiftly. But, he said, that takes time, and he won't compromise the quality of his team's work.

"It's always hard to hear you're not meeting the expectations that we would like to do. My personal commitment, though, to forensics is way beyond just the job," Stout said. "This lab itself affects tens if not hundreds of thousands of people's lives every year and in a really fundamental way. The results we make put people in jail. The results we make get people out of jail. It has a huge impact on their lives."

While the center is optimistic its backlog is improving, James Miller, manager of the lab's seized drug section, said it's important for the public to understand the work that goes into each case.

"I don't think a lot of people understand that it's not just about taking out the pill and sampling it and getting your test results back within an hour like you might see on (TV)," he said.

One aspect Miller said prolongs the amount of time it takes to complete a case is the amount of testing they have to do. Since drug charges are based not only on what the illegal substance is but also on how much of that substance an individual has in their possession, drug analysts sometimes have to test dozens of pills for a single case.

Miller said that means sometimes a single case can take up to one month to process.

"One of my analysts today, she had done testing on what was supposed to be an oxycodone (pill). She ran her test. What does the result come back to? Not oxycodone, but fentanyl," Miller said. "Now she has to go back into that evidence and pull out about 40 other tablets and test each one of those individually, so it doesn't always end with that first test."

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