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Federal Jury Awards $5 Million for Wrongful Conviction Involving Houston Crime Lab
A Texas federal jury awarded $5 million to a former prisoner who was wrongly convicted of kidnapping and sexual assault based in part on falsified evidence generated by the Houston Police Department’s Crime Lab. In rendering its verdict, the jurors found the City of Houston “had an official policy or custom of inadequate supervision or training of its Crime Lab personnel” and that the city’s policymakers were deliberately indifferent to those deficiencies, which were the moving force behind the wrongful conviction.
On October 26, 1987, George Rodriguez was convicted of kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault of a child. DNA testing later proved he was innocent of those offenses. Nonetheless, there was daunting evidence against him, some of which was provided by Houston’s Crime Lab. The problem was that the Crime Lab evidence had been falsified.
On February 24, 1987, a 14-year-old girl was snatched off the street by two men driving a green and white 1978 Chrysler Cordoba. She was blindfolded and driven to a house where she was raped before being taken to another location and released. Remarkably, the girl memorized all of the turns made by the car, allowing police to identify the house.
The girl said one of the men was skinny and the other was fat; both were Hispanic. Manuel Beltran was found at the house and quickly confessed to being the skinny suspect. He identified the fat one as Isidro Yanez. Beltran’s brother had been present at the house when the girl was there, and he also identified the other suspect as Yanez. Furthermore, the Cordoba was Yanez’s car. Regardless, based upon the fact that another person, George Rodriguez, looked a lot like Yanez (who was an occasional police informant), and an officer’s belief that Rodriquez and Beltran hung out together, the police began to build a case against Rodriguez.
Yanez was later turned in to the police by his mother for raping her pregnant, live-in housekeeper. His mother told police she “wants charges filed against her son because he, on several occasions, had assaulted women and nothing has ever been done to him.” This did not deter Rodriguez’s prosecution for raping the 14-year-old girl.
Allegedly, through careful manipulation of lineups and witness coaching, the police were able to get the girl to identify Rodriguez as her assailant. Rodriguez had been at work that day, and his boss told the police about his alibi and testified to it in court. Nonetheless, Rodriguez was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Especially damaging to Rodriguez’s claim that Yanez was the real perpetrator was testimony by Crime Lab criminologists James R. Bolding and Christy Y. Kim. Bolding and Kim testified that a hair found in the girl’s underwear was microscopically consistent with Rodriguez’s, and that, using Lewis ABO typing, semen recovered from the victim excluded Yanez as a suspect but did not exclude Rodriguez.
The Crime Lab evidence was fabricated. Later investigation and DNA testing proved that the hair and semen were not Rodriguez’s but could belong to Yanez. It also was revealed that Kim had fabricated and postdated her bench notes, and Bolding and Kim’s blood and saliva tests didn’t even have the correct typing listed for Yanez.
Rodriguez filed a motion for DNA testing in 2001. On May 10, 2004, testing by an independent lab excluded Rodriguez as a contributor of the hair. He was then released from prison on a personal recognizance bond. On August 31, 2005, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed his case for retrial. In September 2005, eighteen years after he was convicted, the charges against him were dropped. During his incarceration his father had died and his daughters were abused by men who lived with their mother.
Rodriguez filed a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in U.S. District Court, alleging that the City of Houston had a policy, custom and practice of operating a substandard crime lab that fabricated evidence and failed to report exculpatory evidence to prosecutors, despite knowing that this could lead to wrongful convictions. Other publicized errors at the Crime Lab had led to an independent investigation, which resulted in reports that were highly critical of the Lab’s operations and culminated in a final report released on June 13, 2007.
The report detailed the Serology Section’s defective procedures and failure to provide adequate training and supervision of its serologists. Both the report and communications from Crime Lab administrators who complained of severe understaffing, which caused inadequate training, supervising and reliability, were introduced as evidence in Rodriguez’s law-suit.
After the district court denied the city’s attempt to have the report declared inadmissible hearsay, and rejected its efforts to use Rodriguez’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim from his habeas petition to deflect blame and its other summary judgment defenses, the case proceeded to trial.
On June 25, 2009, the jury awarded Rodriguez $3 million for past pain and suffering, $1.5 million for future pain and suffering, $350,000 for past lost earnings and $150,000 for future lost earnings, totaling $5 million. The monetary award, however, didn’t fully compensate Rodriguez. “Ain’t no amount of money is going to even my scale,” he said. “I lost my dad and my girls have been through hell. I am grateful, but no money could replace what I lost.”
Rodriguez was represented by Barry Scheck and other attorneys with the firm of Cochran Neufeld and Scheck, and by the Houston law firm of Susman Godfrey LLP. Rodriguez’s attorneys are seeking fees and costs in the amount of $4.69 million. See: Rodriguez v. City of Houston, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:06-cv-02650.
Additional sources: Houston Chronicle, Crime Lab report by Office of the Independent Investigator (available at www.hplabinvestigation.org)
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Related legal case
Rodriguez v. City of Houston
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:06-cv-02650|
Please see the brief bank for documents related to this case.