Daniel Garner was ready to drift quietly into retirement after decades on the forefront in the field of forensic science.
The last part of his career had the 66-year-old on the go, traveling to foreign countries for the U.S. Department of Justice, helping to revamp struggling crime labs, sometimes in nations enduring political and economic hardships. Just on the short list, Garner helped build a crime lab in Kosovo from scratch, trained more than 1,000 forensic experts in Colombia in how to properly present evidence in court and helped make improvements in the Sri Lankan forensic laboratory that gained it an international accreditation.
While the work was rewarding, it was also hectic. Often he traveled in armed security details, had to undergo vaccinations and dealt with foreign authorities who searched his hotel room, suspicious of his visit to their country.
So when he gave his notice in 2012, he was ready to go.
He and his wife left Washington, D.C., for a small town on the outer banks of North Carolina. The couple started shopping for a home, preferably one near the river that would be perfect for a small pier. Garner imagined relaxing on the deck of his bobbing sailboat and taking in the local galleries during the town’s art walks.
Then, just months into his retirement, Garner was lured back to work as director of the Houston Forensic Science Center, the reincarnation of the once-beleaguered Houston Police Department crime lab.
The new lab is based on a concept that seems simple, but is revolutionary in the field: the lab will operate independently of law enforcement. If the model succeeds, Garner said, it could be a blueprint for crime labs across the country, letting labs operate with greater independence and away from the shadow of law enforcement influence.
“I know there are a lot of people watching Houston to see how this works,” he said. “It’s an extremely unique model and I wanted to be apart of it.”
He made a five-year commitment to help make it happen.
Garner is no stranger to early adoption in the forensic field. In the early 1990s, he became an integral part of test driving and validating a new DNA technology, which now is used as the worldwide standard in forensic analysis.
“Dan had looked at it and thought it was a superior technology to what we were doing at that time,” said Dr. Thomas Caskey, a professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, who created the technology.
With Department of Defense funding, the two teamed up and used the technology to identity casualties of the Gulf War. Caskey, then the director of what is now the Department of Molecular and Human Genetics at Baylor, recalled that their team tested and identified DNA samples from 34 dead troops in just one night.
The project was the first verification of the technology. Shortly after, the FBI began using it.
Caskey attributes a part of that success to Garner’s confidence in the technology.
“I have to give him credit,” he said. “He came in early in the game and made an intelligent decision about it.”
Thrust into the lab
For all his instincts in the field, forensics was not a career path that Garner always envisioned for himself. He’d never heard of it before his first job.
In 1973, shortly after he graduated with a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Tennessee, he mailed about 150 letters for jobs. He was 25, married with a young daughter and a son on the way. Jobs were scarce, and he needed to land on his feet quickly.
He got a reply from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, when the agency was still under the arm of the Department of Treasury, to work in the alcohol-testing lab.Six months after taking the job, the young chemist was moved to the forensics laboratory, suddenly thrust into the world of violent crime, testing evidence from sexual assaults and homicides. He spent 14 years there.
“This was nothing I planned out, but strictly luck,” he recalled. “It grew on me then.”
Garner then entered the commercial sector, becoming lab director and later president at Cellmark, a private laboratory that specialized in DNA testing. After 12 years there, he returned to government work, this time for International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program, embedded in of the Department of Justice.
As the organization’s forensic section chief, he traveled the world, building and improving crime laboratories and training their staff. By the time his 13-year stint with the program ended, he’d implemented plans for labs in 35 countries, including Colombia, Pakistan, Indonesia and Algeria. One of his most challenging projects was in Kosovo, where Garner and his team literally built the forensic laboratory from the ground up, then hired and trained a staff and implemented a plan for the lab to be self-sustaining.
“It was literally a blank field when we started, an empty field,” he said. The project lasted almost a decade. “And now there’s a very nice forensic lab operating over there.”
Suspended after audit
In Houston, the city’s crime lab had been under the control of the Houston Police Department. Testing was suspended temporarily in 2002 after an audit cited unqualified personnel, lax protocols and shoddy facilities, including a roof that leaked rainwater onto evidence. The lab also carried a decades-old backlog of thousands of untested rape kits until last year, when City Council outsourced the testing to two private firms for $4.4 million.
After the turmoil, city leaders in 2012 created a local government corporation to take over operations from HPD. Board members of the Houston Forensic Science Center wanted a director who had experience in making over troubled crime laboratories, helping them build public trust.
“We did a pretty exhaustive search that even included international candidates,” said Scott Hochberg, who chairs the city forensics board. “Dr. Garner brought it all to us.”
In just a little over a year as director, Garner has helped the lab acquire new accreditations and improved the quality of the work and communication among the staff, Hochberg said. Most importantly, Garner is transparent with all his decisions.
For Garner, it wasn’t the $185,000-a-year job itself that lured him out of his long-awaited retirement. Nor was it necessarily the challenge – Garner believes the lab is no longer in a crisis mode, but rather a building stage. It was the opportunity to implement and cultivate an ethos.
A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences recommended that forensic laboratories should no longer be part of, or operated by, law enforcement agencies such as police departments or district attorney’s offices. Garner wholeheartedly agrees.
While he believes in the country’s criminal justice system, he is cognizant that it is also an adversarial model that includes a prosecution and a defense. Scientists, he said, are trained to be more collaborative.
“Philosophically, that’s two different ways of looking at a problem,” Garner said. “I think it’s important for the forensic side to have that independence, so we can narrow it down without worrying about which side is going to benefit or profit from it, just narrowing it down to what we think is the accurate information.”