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Harris County DA says Houston's crime lab backlog prevents them from prioritizing murder cases

The DA's Office said backlogged cases jumped dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, going from 389 cases to 556 in 2020.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — On Friday, a new Texas law will go into effect requiring trial courts to give priority to murder and capital murder cases, but the Harris County District's Attorney Office says they can't do so due to a backlog at Houston's crime lab.

The DA's Office said backlogged cases jumped dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, going from 389 cases to 556 in 2020. That created a backlog on testing at the city's crime lab.

Now, it's taking 3 to 7 years to prosecute murder cases, according to the DA's Office.

Harris County DA Kim Ogg called on Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city Wednesday to fully fund the Houston Forensic Science Center and to outsource all backlogged evidence testing. The center's website shows the estimated current turnaround time for evidence testing as up to 557 days for latent or fingerprint processing.

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The mayor's office responded Wednesday afternoon, saying in part that the city has provided the center with all the resources it's asked for, along with nearly $5 million in the city's budget.

Read the mayor's full statement:

"The  City of Houston has provided the Houston Forensic Center with the resources it is asked for along with nearly $5,000,000 in budget resources with more possibly to come.  

"Total City Provided ARPA SLFRF funding - $4,950,000

"$300K - Overtime Funding for Crime Scene Unit and Firearms: CSU caseload increased 40% since 2019 and firearms nearly doubled. This funding will provide more hours of staff time in CSU and Firearms.

"$400k - Outsourcing Toxicology cases: The numbers of cases submitted to HFSC for analysis in FY2020 and FY2021 were up 46% and 24% respectively since FY2019. There is some commercial capacity nationwide to be able to outsource drug analysis in DUI cases. This funding will help to reduce the toxicology backlog. 

"$2.0M - Training Cost of New Employees: There is a $200k internal trainer cost for HFSC employees training new employees. On average, it takes a new employee approximately 1 year and roughly $400k in costs to go from hire to authorized to work cases. This funding will increase the number of available analyses. 

"$900K - Firearms Specialized Training: Firearm cases are all violent crimes and mostly homicides. As the courts have returned from COVID and the county is expanding emergency dockets and administrative courts, there was an increased pressure on HFSC to provide results. This funding provides additional examiner.

"$500K - E-Discovery and Justice Trax System Upgrades: The Courts' expanded dockets put a demand on HFSC to produce documentation for these courts. This funding will help streamline document sharing.

"$250K - Temporary Labor to Reduce Documentation Backlog from Harris County's Increased Demand: The courts want documentation immediately. While the online document-sharing tool is ramped up, this funding provides temporary labor to alleviate some of the administrative burden placed on HFSC.

"$600k - Outsourcing Digital Multimedia: Mobile devices like cell phones are often requested for court cases and investigations. These are often of acute need in investigations and results of the processing are needed in hours or days to be relevant. This funding provides contractors proficient with these devices to more quickly respond to the demand."

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