COLLEGE STATION – The scandal-plagued forensics division of the Houston Police Department has made major headway in recent years fixing mistakes of the last decade. A Texas A&M University statistician is now part of a national team of scientists providing technical advice to the country's second-fastest growing city in its efforts to create an independent forensics laboratory.
Cliff Spiegelman is the only statistician in the nine-member Technical Advisory Group, a panel that will advise the independent city-chartered organization that took over the Houston Police Department forensic division. The advisory body will provide input on best practices in forensic science and lab operations to help move past the lab's troubled history, which included a temporary shutdown in 2002 following an audit that revealed a variety of issues, from unqualified personnel and lax protocols to shoddy facilities and compromised evidence.
"The end goal is to have a crime lab that‘s not associated with the police department, so it's not trying to please its employer, but rather focused on doing good science," said Spiegelman, a distinguished professor in the Department of Statistics.
It's a task well-suited for Spiegelman: He has been an ardent advocate of the need for the criminal justice system to better embrace science in the courtroom.
Relying on his statistics expertise, Spiegelman was a forceful opponent of a method of forensic testing called Comparative Bullet-Lead Analysis (CBLA), which partly through his work the FBI discredited in 2007. The abandoned technique used chemistry to link bullets from a crime scene to those owned by a suspect and was first used following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Spiegelman also makes a few out-of-state trips a year – often for free – to testify in cases in which he believes the forensic science is flawed. He often works with the Innocence Project, the national non-profit legal clinic dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and other post-verdict methods.
"It's an area of science where I have expertise, and there's a shortage of statistical help," Spiegelman said. "And Houston is a community not far from our own. I think I can do some good and help cut down on the number of false convictions and on the number of guilty people walking around free."