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Crime Lab Problems Continue In Texas, Elsewhere

More than two years after the closure of its DNA division, the Houston Police Department (HPD) crime lab remains a lesson in how not to run a forensics unit. Recent developments include the discovery of 280 boxes of misplaced evidence and a revelation that an analyst from a private laboratory consulted with police and prosecutors on how to report the results of DNA testing in a capital murder case.

The HPD crime lab debacle exploded in November 2002 after news reports exposed the lab's sloppy work and shoddy procedures. An outside audit later found that technicians were poorly trained, routinely misinterpreted data, and kept records in disarray. The lab was shut down for a time (the DNA division is still closed), its work given to outside laboratories, and retesting ordered in over 400 cases. Several top administrators eventually resigned or were fired, though all escaped criminal prosecution. Three months later Josiah Sutton, a prisoner serving 25 years for a 1999 rape, was released after being exonerated by a retesting of DNA evidence originally analyzed by the HPD crime lab. [See PLN, July 2003, p. 26].

On January 4, 2004, state lawmakers and city officials met to discuss the lab's ongoing problems. One of the problems addressed was the August 2004 discovery of 280 boxes of mislabled evidence from 8,000 cases dating back to the 1970s. During the meeting Democratic Senators Rodney Ellis and John Whitmire questioned Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal's refusal to back a moratorium on executions following the discovery--an action both senators support (possibly because Harris County imposes more death sentences than any other county in the nation). We know that nothing in any of these boxes pertains to any death penalty cases," Rosenthal replied, adding that he is confident enough to sleep. Days later Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt announced that the mislabled boxes included evidence from 28 capital cases. Defendants in 20 of the cases have already been executed. It's unclear how this has affected Rosenthal's sleep.

Present at the meeting were two men recently released from prison because of problems with evidence analyzed by the HPD and Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) crime labs. George Rodriguez of Houston was released in October 2004 after he was exonerated of rape by a retesting of blood evidence originally processed by HPD. Rodriguez served 17 years in prison. Brandon Moon was freed in December 2004 after serving 16 years for rape based on a DPS serologist's testimony that blood-type testing indicated he was the culprit. Recent retesting cleared him.

Barry Scheck, co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, who sat between the two men, commented that, There is a proven legacy of serious negligence and misconduct among many who conduct forensic analysis in Texas that has led to conviction of the innocent and, undoubtedly, execution of the innocent." Scheck said that a third client, Ernest R. Willis, released from death row after his corrupted arson conviction was overturned, was afraid to come into the state.

The lawmakers also outlined plans to try to guard against further problems, including bringing in the Texas Rangers to monitor laboratory operations. Ranger oversight was tentatively set to begin on February 1, 2005. Several lawmakers also said they supported separating crime labs from police departments to ensure independent findings. Unfortunately, problems also abound with independent labs.

On December 3, 2004, Victor Alpizar, a DNA analyst for Identigeneone of three private laboratories checking HPD's DNA work--testified that he consulted with police and prosecutors before drafting a report about evidence in the capital murder case of Sheldon Thompson. Thompson is charged with murder of a man found shot to death in his driveway on November 1, 2001.

The collaboration with police and prosecutors took place after another Identigene analyst, Jennifer McCue, botched the results of DNA retesting in the case by confusing two samples. The error was caught by an HPD official and led to a third round of testing. Alpizar performed the final tests which analysts claim link Thompson to the murder. According to his notes, Alpizar drafted three different reports on the results and talked with Assistant District Attorneys Colleen Barnett and Lynne Parsons before releasing the final version. Rosenthal said he was a little bit surprised" that the prosecutors consulted with Identigene, but said there was no reason for concern.

Others disagree. Stanley Schneider, a member of the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and critic of investigations of the HPD lab, said such consultations were the group's worst nightmare." There is no independence if the DAs are telling the scientists how to write reports," said Schneider. Who is controlling the lab, the scientists or the DAs?" Schneider also raised concerns about the quality of work performed by HPD, commenting on McCue's faulty test results. Everyone makes mistakes but not when you're retesting the screw-ups," he said. It certainly calls into question the quality of the lab.

But the problems in Houston are just part of the story. When the HPD imbroglio kicked off in 2002, scandals involving other crime labs in Texas, Virginia, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Washington were also making headlines. This continues to be the case. On November 19, 2004, the Los Angeles Times reported that Maryland-based Orchid Cellmark--the world's largest private DNA testing firm with labs in Maryland, Texas, Tennessee, and Britain--fired one of their analysts for mishandling DNA evidence in 11 Los Angeles Police Department investigations.

Cellmark officials said analyst Selma Blair was fired for professional misconduct." Blair reportedly substituted control samples with actual DNA evidence, prompting a retesting of all her past work. Blair handled 27 cases for the LAPD, 11 of which showed evidence of faulty analysis, said Steve Johnson, head of LAPD's Scientific Investigations Bureau. Blair's, conduct was unacceptable in any laboratory," he said.
Los Angeles prosecutor Lisa Kahn espoused the typical prosecutorial line saying that Blair's conduct will have no bearing on the cases because the DNA evidence itself was not compromised. There is nothing wrong with any of the evidence in any of these cases," said Kahn. These cases will proceed to trial and I don't expect for them to be affected in anyway.
That all the errors" and mistakes' that occur benefit prosecutors and police is not a coincidence. The crime labs are run to ensure criminal convictions with a veneer of scientific certainty. Even if the science and methods need to be played with in order to ensure the results necessary to gain a conviction. Until crime labs are run as truly independent facilities, by professionals with no links or funding by police and prosecutors, these issues will continue.
Jennifer Friedman, forensic science coordinator for the Los Angeles County public defenders office said, however, that the case illustrates larger issues and potential deficiencies as the use of DNA in criminal cases grows. People have to understand that this was human error and there are lots of human components to DNA testing," she said. There always will be errors, no matter how automated these systems become." The only question is, who will pay the price for those errors?

Sources: Houston Chronicle, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Dallas Morning News, WB39 News

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