Oct. 13, 2007
Editorial, Houston Chronicle
After 14 years in prison due to the incompetence of the Houston Police Department's crime lab, Ronald Gene Taylor promptly did the right thing. He traveled to City Hall straight from prison and called for other flawed cases to be re-examined.
After victimizing Taylor so unforgivably, the criminal justice system must show the same urgency and immediately re-examine the lab's hundreds of outstanding cases of malfeasance. Reviewing 419 of the lab's worst failures — in which bodily fluids were analyzed incorrectly or simply not tested — is the moral equivalent of Taylor's righteous beeline to City Hall.
So far, though, city and county officials have been outrageously lax. A new panel assembled by Harris County's criminal district judges might just end the slow-motion disgrace, but only if the project is well-funded, superbly staffed and transparently run.
This Wednesday, the judges agreed to hire three defense attorneys and a retired judge to study the importance of marred crime lab evidence in 180 convictions. Judge Mary Bacon will launch the process Oct. 22, asking 160 defendants by video conference if they want their cases reviewed. The panel's assembly, its fixed start date and announced game plan all are good signs. It will take only a short time to tell if the panel is following through.
Encouragingly, the malignant crime lab of 2002 (the year the scandal first broke) no longer exists. Many staffers, shielded by the statute of limitations, are gone. The system that let bogus experts ignore, change and fabricate evidence has been replaced by accredited departments and supervision.
Justice would have been served better if the city listened in June to former U.S. Justice Department inspector Michael Bromwich. After a $5.3 million probe of the lab, Bromwich recommended hiring a special master to study evidence in 180 cases where serology analyses were badly flawed.
In unison, however, Mayor Bill White, Police Chief Harold Hurtt and Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal rejected the idea. The courts along with the nonprofit Innocence Project and other groups, they said, could clean up the mess just as well.
Five months later, it's clear this was wrong. This September, a story by Chronicle reporters Roma Khanna and Steve McVicker showed that nearly two-thirds of 60 defendants convicted with flawed DNA evidence had gotten little help or even notice that their trials were faulty.
In 24 of those cases, attorneys raked in tens of thousands of dollars but performed little meaningful action. Fifteen of the convicted defendants got no representation at all.
Among these inmates might be more Houstonians like Ronald Taylor: innocent men and women for whom each day behind bars is another robbed from their lives.
This is why it's so urgent to re-examine these documented miscarriages of justice. It's also why the job requires expert, disinterested professionals. Some judges presiding over the case reviews were prosecutors on some of the very cases in question.
Centralizing the review process in one panel and assigning Judge Bacon and defense attorney Bob Wicoff inspires confidence. But these two alone can't do the job unless the panel's other lawyers are experienced and first-rate in their field.
The panel will also need plenty office space and full-time support staff to help with time-draining tasks such as copying documents. While it's the county's place to supply these resources, Houston law firms and private foundations can help with funding.
The new panel must be able to publicly account for its progress by January. Ronald Gene Taylor should not have to wait one day longer to see Houston pursuing justice.