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Houston Crime Lab Closed, Prisoner Freed

On March 6, 2003, the Houston Police Department (HPD) Chief C. O. Bradford announced that the department's DNA crime lab had been shut down and that internal affairs had launched an investigation into possible criminal and other misconduct.

The announcement came six days before Josiah Sutton, who had been serving a 25 year sentence for rape, was released from prison after being exonerated by a retest of DNA evidence. Sutton was convicted in 1999, largely on testimony by lab technicians that his DNA matched DNA taken from the crime scene.

The crime lab has been under fire since an audit completed in December 2002 found that the lab's technicians were inadequately trained and that they routinely misinterpreted data and kept records in disarray. The audit further found that the technicians routinely used up all the evidence, making it impossible to refute it or have it retested.

The audit's findings led to a suspension of genetic testing, a review of the lab's procedures, and retesting of DNA evidence. So far, HPD has turned over 525 cases involving DNA testing to the Harris County district attorney's office for review. Of those, officials say, at least 62 warrant retesting.

DNA expert Elizabeth Johnson, who has been a defense witness in a number of cases involving the crime lab, is a vocal critic. "They can't do a sperm sample separation to save their lives," says Dr. Johnson. "If you put a gun to their heads and said you have to do this or you will die, you'd just have to kill them."

Another problem, says Dr. Johnson, is that HPD lab technicians greatly exaggerate the possibility that a defendant might be guilty. To date, all of the lab's errors have been pro-prosecution, never in favor of the defense. This is especially troubling considering that Harris County sends more people to death row than any other county in the nation. Seventeen of the 62 cases already flagged for retesting involve death row prisoners.

Other police crime labs around the nation, including those in Oklahoma City, Montana, and Washington State, has also been accused of performing slipshod work and providing false or misleading testimony. Most notably, the FBI crime lab was rocked by controversy in 1997 after an internal investigation accused 13 lab technicians of making scientific errors and aiding prosecutors with biased testimony. None of the technicians were fired or prosecuted. Cases handled by the technicians are still being reviewed; the Justice Department has already identified about 3,000 criminal cases that may have been adversely affected.

However, many criminal defense lawyers are questioning the Justice Department's decision to allow prosecutorsfederal, local, and stateto decide whether or not to inform defendants of potential problems with their cases. According to Neal Sonnet, a former federal prosecutor, "That's like asking the fox to guard the hen house." [For the most information on the FBI lab scandal see the website.]

Sources: The Associated Press, The New York Times

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