Mayor Proclaims July 13 as Casarez Day for Crime Lab Turnaround
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner proclaimed July 13, 2019, Nicole Casarez Day in honor of her work as chair of the board of the Houston Forensic Science Center, which transformed Houston’s scandal-ridden crime lab into a world-recognized forensic center.
Cásarez, professor of communication at University of St. Thomas and an attorney, is well known for investigating wrongful convictions, including more than eight years of work with UST students that led to the exoneration of Anthony Graves after 18 years in prison, including 12 on death row.
She later served alongside Graves on the board of the HFSC, working to prevent wrongful convictions from happening, instead of through the legal system after they happen.
In June, Cásarez completed her fourth year as chair of the board of HFSC, and seventh year on the board, since its inception.
“When the Houston Forensic Science Center first started, the Houston Police Department crime lab was widely believed to be one of the worst crime labs in the country,” Cásarez said. “There had been 10 years of scandals. It’s hard to shake that mantel when you’re tarred by all of the negative publicity that the HPD crime lab suffered. It’s hard to overcome that.”
Mayor Recognizes Casarez’s Service to Houstonians
In the Proclamation, Mayor Turner said under her leadership, the crime lab greatly improved from having a reputation of one of the worst in the nation to become one of the best in the world.
“Through years of dedication, Nicole Cásarez has worked diligently to improve public safety in the City of Houston by ensuring the HFSC provides the justice system with fair objective science,” the mayor wrote in the Proclamation.
The board was set up in 2012 by then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker to govern the crime lab after the Houston Police Department relinquished control of the lab. A local government corporation was established to create an independent lab following the National Academy of Sciences recommendations.
Board Members Rebuild an Independent Crime Lab
Cásarez and the board faced huge challenges, from finding scientists to run the lab to making organizational changes while the lab continued to operate—akin to changing the pilot and flight crew while the plane was flying. The board created new budgets and made plans to relocate the crime lab operations out of the Houston Police Department headquarters to a new space downtown. In a cost-neutral move, the Houston Forensic Science Center will have a new home at 500 Jefferson St. this fall, with better ventilation, properly designed wet labs, a power grid appropriate for the work and—importantly—no ties to HPD.
“For Houstonians, the laboratory will be more efficient, more cost-effective, because it’s in a space now that is designed to be a crime lab,” Cásarez said. “There won’t be as many worries about potential contamination of evidence.”
UST Students Benefit from Cásarez’s Crime Lab Experience
In addition to other communication classes at UST, Cásarez teaches the Wrongful Convictions course, cross-listed with Criminology, Law and Society. Through her experience on the board of HFSC, she speaks expertly to her students about junk science in criminal proceedings, and each semester she takes students to visit HFSC. Giving students access to communication professionals in the field, she invites HFSC’s Communication Director Ramit Plushnick-Masti to speak to her public relations class about handling communications for a nonprofit.
Plushnick-Masti said Houston is considered a model today for what others could and should do to improve their forensic agencies.
“Without Nicole, we would not be this successful,” Plushnick-Masti said. “Her experience, wisdom and courage to stand up and speak for what is right, even in the face of powerful opposition, have been invaluable along this journey.”
This summer Cásarez traveled to Germany to present an article, “Solving Daubert’s Dilemma for the Forensic Sciences Through Blind Testing,” at the 7th International Conference on Evidence Law and Forensic Science, co-written with fellow HFSC board member Professor Sandy Thompson, of the University of Houston Law Center. Cásarez and Thompson will present the article again Sept. 19 at the 2019 Forensic Science Symposium at UHLC.
Cásarez is on sabbatical this semester to work with Thompson on a book about best practices in forensic science.
“It was a huge honor to be on the board,” Cásarez said. “The staff, the scientists there—I have enormous respect for all of them. I’m going to miss them a lot. It’s the right thing to do to step away; the board needs to exercise oversight, and it’s time for fresh eyes and fresh ideas.”