Private labs' results provide leads in hundreds of HPD backlog cases
January 24, 2014 | Updated: January 25, 2014 1:04am
Private forensic laboratories hired to clear the Houston Police Department's untested DNA evidence - including a decades-old rape kit backlog - have identified potential offenders in a third of the cases where sufficient DNA samples were found, according to a HPD report.
The evidence includes 6,600 sexual assault kits held over the years after Houston Police Department management shut down its in-house forensic lab at police headquarters. In 2002, DNA testing at HPD's crime lab was temporarily suspended after an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work including unqualified personnel, lax protocols and inadequate facilities that included a roof that leaked rainwater onto evidence.
Several critics, while applauding the rapid pace of the recent testingsaid the long delay in processing the evidence could mean that justice was denied to victims as sexual offenders eluded punishment. The testing could also reveal if anyone had been wrongly convicted.
Mayor Annise Parker made a priority of testing the untested rape kits stored in the HPD property room, as she moved to transfer forensic testing from the police to an independent city-operated lab. Last February,, Parker and the City Council approved hiring two respected forensic laboratories - Bode Technology Group in Virginia and Sorenson Forensics of Salt Lake City - to process all of the sexual assault kits on hand at HPD. The companies agreed to test more than 10,000 cases, including those in the 6,600 backlog, newer cases and another 1,000 non-sexual crimes where DNA could be tested.
Parker said Friday that the updated report on the ongoing DNA testing was "the good news we had hoped would result from the elimination of the backlog."
"We know not to expect useful results from every test," Parker said. "However, even just a handful of information can help in the elimination of some unsolved cases. It is a project that is very important to me because I know how important it is to the thousands of rape survivors who had to wait so long to see it get done."
HPD is scheduled to update a council committee about the testing on Tuesday, said department spokesman Victor Senties. He declined to comment Friday on the results.
9,500 cases received
Since the HPD lab resumed operations about six years ago, the city has spent millions to outsource DNA evidence testing to reduce the backlog, including $2.1 million in federal money in 2010 and 2011. That money was used, in part, to study why the kits had not been tested.
Last year's multimillion-dollar clearance project to bulk outsource the cases came more than a year after HPD officials began an inventory of the sexual assault kits in their property room to determine how many had not been tested.
The two private labs have received 9,500 cases, and completed testing in nearly 6,200, according to the HPD report. Of those completed, sufficient evidence was found in 1,268, about a third of the 3,760 cases that have undergone HPD review to ensure the DNA evidence meets federal standards.
The remaining 2,492 cases reviewed did not find any results useful to investigator