Alluding to a recent Massachusetts crime lab scandal that has called into question hundreds of convictions, the acting director of the District of Columbia’s new forensic sciences lab said Friday that putting in a checks and balances system early on would be critical to preventing similar incidents at the city’s recently completed facility.
Max Houck was appointed over the summer to lead the new $220 million lab and the department created last year by the D.C. Council to oversee it, the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences. He has served as acting director since August and appeared Friday before the judiciary committee for his confirmation hearing.
Houck referred to a controversy in Boston this year surrounding a state chemist accused of fabricating drug analysis results. He said he was considering “robust” methods for preventing such behavior, from blind case review and re-testing a certain percentage of cases to designating the forensic sciences department’s general counsel as an ombudsman to “act as a sounding board” for issues and concerns about the lab’s operations.
The lab and department officially launched on October 1. Houck said Friday that the transition is going well so far, although he’s still in the midst of hiring and figuring out administrative issues such as accreditation. He said that as he civilianizes the crime scene analysis functions currently handled by the Metropolitan Police Department, for instance, accreditation may be problematic as long as there’s a lab with a mix of law enforcement and civilian employees.
The lab will house the city’s crime lab, public health lab and medical examiner’s office, with the crime lab and public health lab falling under the jurisdiction of the new forensic sciences department. In a major change, the crime lab will operate separate from local law enforcement agencies. Independence was among the primary recommendations of a 2009 report on the forensic sciences by the National Research Council of the National Academies.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asked Houck how he would maintain the lab’s independence in the face of pressure from city officials during a hypothetical high-profile investigation. Houck – whose past experience includes identifying remains after the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 – said that managing expectations and having a lab with a firm foundation in scientific principles and practices would counter outside pressure.
Mendelson asked about the status of a science advisory board that the council created to oversee and advise the new forensic sciences department. Houck said he was “very much” looking forward to working with that board and is in the process of putting together a list of names for approval by Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander Jr.
No one else testified and no other councilmembers were in attendance.
Before his appointment, Houck served as an FBI forensic scientist and then led the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University. Mendelson said he had received several letters in support of Houck’s appointment, including one from Peter Neufeld, co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project.
Mendelson said the council would likely act on Houck’s confirmation before the end of the calendar year. The committee will accept public comment through November 5.