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Early critic named director of Houston’s new crime lab


www.chron.com
Houston Chronicle (10/09/2003)

By Steve McVicker and Roma Khanna

A DNA expert who helped write the report that led to closure of the Houston Police Department’s infamous DNA division, and who later described it as one of the worst she had ever seen, has been named the city’s new crime laboratory director.

Irma Rios, currently supervisor of the DNA/serology labs for the Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin, will take over in Houston on Oct. 20. As part of her duties, Rios will oversee the HPD DNA lab, which has been embroiled in controversy since an independent audit in December 2002 documented shoddy science, poorly trained workers and substandard facilities.

The hiring of Rios, one of three authors of the critical audit, drew immediate praise.

“ If she was involved in closing it, she must know what’s wrong with it,” said City Councilman Mark Goldberg.

Forensic scientists agreed that Rios, who is 42 and has 19 years of experience and solid credentials, is a fine choice.

“ She is one of the most competent forensic science supervisors that they possibly could have selected,” said Frank Fitzpatrick, the former crime lab director in Orange County, Calif., who was hired by HPD to run the crime lab on an interim basis.

But his and other scientists’ praise was tempered with concerns about the problems at the Houston lab and what some called a historic lack of support from the Police Department.

“ In a way, I feel sorry for her,” said Joseph Warren, assistant crime lab director at the University of North Texas-Health Science Center. “It is a very tough job with all that has happened in that lab, and those are not just recent problems. They have been ongoing for years.”

Warren added that the hiring of a qualified crime lab director must be accompanied by a commitment from HPD and the city.

“ It is going to take a paradigm shift from the police administration toward that crime lab,” he said, “and without that, even the best of people will have a hard time turning that lab around.”

Experts have said it could cost as much as 40 percent more to meet industry standards in the lab.

Since 1994, Rios has been overseeing DPS’s 12 regional DNA labs statewide.

She has a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from University of Texas-Pan American and a master’s degree in business administration from Southwest Texas State University.

Contacted Wednesday, Rios declined to comment other than to confirm her hiring.

But state Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston and one of the crime lab’s biggest critics, issued a statement in support of her appointment.

“ We’re glad to see that the Houston Police Department is moving forward in resolving the problems with the crime lab, and we feel that Ms. Rios is very knowledgeable of the problems and should be able to get in there and clean it up,” said Bailey.

He is chairman of the state legislative committee that has been holding hearings looking into the crime lab debacle. Rios testified before Bailey’s panel in March about the situation with the HPD DNA lab. At one point during her testimony, Rios was asked by a committee member if the Houston lab was the worst she had ever seen.

“ It’s very close,” said Rios.

Councilwoman Carol Alvarado said she doubts those comments will lead to any backlash from current crime lab employees.

“ I hope not,” she said. “I think she comes in with an open and unbiased view.”

For more than four months, a Harris County grand jury -- working without the usual assistance of prosecutors -- has been trying to determine if any laws were broken in connection with the DNA scandal.

Additionally, after a review of more than 1,300 criminal cases involving DNA evidence handled by the HPD lab, the Harris County district attorney’s office ordered the retesting of DNA evidence in almost 400 convictions. Among the first 60 retests, possible problems have been detected in at least 16 cases. The retesting already has resulted in the release of one man, Josiah Sutton, from prison.

Rios replaces Donald Krueger, who retired in February after the DNA section’s widespread problems were exposed. Former Police Chief C.O. Bradford recommended that Krueger be fired for his contribution to the lab’s problems after an internal review was completed.