Texas A&M Statistician Helps Restructure Houston Police Crime Lab
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."
Spiegelman's panel will advise the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corporation, Inc., which was established by Mayor Annise Parker and the Houston City Council. The Technical Advisory Group will help the HFSLGC meet and maintain high standards of technical performance and accreditation and advise the board of new developments in the rapidly changing fields of forensic science, according to a news release from the City of Houston.
In the May release, Parker described the establishment of the advisory panel of scientists as "an important milestone in the process of forming an independent forensic science center of the highest quality."
Spiegelman is a founder within statistics of the field of chemometrics, the science of using data to extract information from chemical systems. He also is a senior research scientist with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the state's transportation research agency. He joined the Texas A&M Department of Statistics in 1987 as an assistant professor, earning promotion to full professor in 1990 and to distinguished professor in 2009.
The other members of the advisory panel are: Bruce Budowle, director of the University of North Texas Institute of Investigative Genetics; Darrell Davis, a former Drug Enforcement Administration lab director in Dallas; David Epstein, an expert in forensic chemistry; Antonios Mikos, a professor at Rice University and member of the National Academy of Engineering; Surgur Srihari, a distinguished professor at the State University of New York and expert in data handling and document analysis; Elizabeth Todd, a chief of the Dallas County Institute of Forensic Sciences; and Bobby Wilson, a chemistry professor and former provost of Texas Southern University. HFSLGC board member Enrique Barrera, a mechanical engineering and materials science professor at Rice University, is serving as a liaison between the board and the advisory panel.
Click here to learn more about Spiegelman and his efforts to connect statistical science with the criminal justice system.
For additional information from the City of Houston regarding the formation of the advisory panel, view the complete news release here.
To find out more about the Texas A&M Department of Statistics, visit http://www.stat.tamu.edu/.
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Contact: Vimal Patel, (979) 845-7246 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. Clifford H. Spiegelman, (979) 845-3141 or email@example.com