Many Texas crime labs can't meet new law's goal


By PAM EASTON
Associated Press Writer

HOUSTON- Only about one-third of the state's unaccredited crime labs are expected to meet a Thursday deadline for achieving the standards required for accreditation.

Labs that fail to meet the deadline will be banned from introducing evidence at criminal trials. Based on state records from the Department of Public Safety, more than 28 labs remain unaccredited in all areas.

"We still don't know how devastating the impact is going to be, but it is going to be huge," Mansfield Police Chief Steve Noonkester said. "It is going to hurt every small city in the state."

Eighteen labs, 13 operated by the Texas Department of Public Safety, already were accredited. Those labs now will have to analyze the evidence from departments that aren't accredited while trying to deal with a DPS backlog of 1,100 DNA cases, said spokeswoman Tela Mange.

The 2003 law was prompted by problems at the Houston police crime lab, which closed its DNA section in 2002. An investigation revealed serious deficiencies, including a lack of training for analysts, insufficient documentation by workers and possible contamination of DNA samples in Houston.

Fort Worth police also suspended DNA testing that year and have since donated their DNA equipment to the state Department of Public Safety.

"Accreditation is not necessarily the end-all answer to everything, but at least there are some standards that labs have to adhere to," Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, said of the legislation he sponsored.

The Houston Police crime lab now has been accredited in five areas. But the lab still cannot perform DNA analysis and likely won't try to resume the work until next year.

In Fort Worth, DNA work won't resume until the department can build a new lab, which could take up to four years, said Tom Stimpson, division manager for the forensic division of the Fort Worth Police Department.

Some labs though, are not going through with the accreditation process, which can cost up to $50,000. Forensic Consultant Services in Fort Worth will shut its doors Thursday because the lab owner could not afford the costs involved.

Noonkester still isn't sure how he'll investigate the next murder in Mansfield. He had used the private lab to collect evidence from crime scenes where he knew forensic evidence would be vital to the case.

"When you pull up on the scene of a crime, you have one chance, and one chance only to get it right," he said.

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