The backlog of murder cases at Houston's forensic science center is leading to significant delays in Harris County murder cases, the district attorney's office said ahead of the state's new law to speed up murder prosecutions. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, along with prosecutors, law enforcement advocates, and crime victims, held a news conference to commend the new law, set to go into effect Friday. The law expands the list of types of cases that judges are required to schedule hearings and trials for, including murder, and capital murder, Houston Landing reports. Previously, judges were only required to schedule child sexual abuse and domestic violence, as well as a few other felony cases. Ogg said that the heightened importance the legislature has given murder trials will have a positive impact on public safety in the county. However, critics of the new law called it toothless because there are no consequences for slow-moving cases.
Ogg called for the city to increase the forensic center's budget, while a police union official said the center's director "may be a great scientist, but obviously he's a horrible manager." That director, Peter Stout, has been credited with with turning around an agency once considered the worst in the country, after a scandal over its mismanagement while under police department control. There were 1,816 capital murder and murder cases pending in Harris County as of Aug. 22, Ogg said. While the COVID-era spike in homicides and a higher solve rate by law enforcement agencies are contributors to the mounting backlog, the Houston Forensic Science Center was still flagged as the key source of delays. Data on the Houston Forensic Science Center’s website showed roughly 4,000 evidence requests had gone more than a month without being fully analyzed and documented as of late August. Some of the agency’s most common requests, including fingerprint analysis and firearms examination, take an average of six months to nearly two years to complete, according to a July operations report. Alex Bunin, chief public defender at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, said the scientific burden has grown in crime cases. “We’re catching up with science,” said Bunin. “There’s so much more evidence in cases now. Even our simplest cases have multiple body cams, dash cams, forensic testing that needs to be done. All that is overloading the labs. That’s really what’s been a huge impediment to getting cases ready.”