A solution for HPD crime lab
Oct. 6, 2007
By BARRY SCHECK and STATE SENS. RODNEY ELLIS and JOHN WHITMIRE, Houston Chronicle Viewpoints, Outlook
When Ronald Taylor walks out of prison this week, he will be a free man for the first time in 14 years. Because of faulty work at the Houston Police Department crime lab, he was arrested in 1993 and convicted in 1995 for a rape that DNA now proves he did not commit.
Taylor's case is a stark and deeply troubling reminder that there are hundreds of old cases from the HPD crime lab that need to be investigated and resolved. This must be done for the sake of innocent people who may still be imprisoned, for the law enforcement benefit of apprehending the guilty who committed serious crimes, and for the very integrity of the system, so it won't ignore its worst mistakes by claiming the criminal justice bureaucracy is just too intractable to correct them.
The independent audit of the HPD crime lab identified an extraordinary number of cases that involved questionable serology, bodily fluid typing that was a precursor to DNA testing. The report recommended that a Special Master be appointed to oversee a process of reviewing the cases and determining which ones should be subjected to new testing. Mayor Bill White, Police Chief Harold Hurtt and Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal all rejected the proposal for a Special Master, suggesting that the Innocence Project and related organizations could look into the cases.
We cannot take responsibility for the massive problem of representing hundreds of people whose cases were affected by the HPD crime lab, but we do have a solution.
The Innocence Project has identified 419 serology cases from the audit that are the most likely candidates for retesting. Of these, 274 are cases where crime scene evidence tested positive for blood or semen but was never subjected to further testing, and 139 are cases where blood-type testing was performed on crime scene evidence but was never compared to the blood type of victims or suspects. These should be the top priority because they are precisely the kinds of cases where DNA testing can confirm guilt or innocence. (These 419 cases include 74 of the 180 cases identified by the independent audit as having "major issues." The 419 cases had incomplete serological testing; the 180 had serious errors and the overlapping 74 had both errors and incomplete testing.)
The first step should be to locate the evidence from these 419 cases. Next, for all of the cases where the evidence still exists, the defendants need to be contacted to see whether they want DNA testing to be conducted. Testing then needs to be conducted on the appropriate pieces of evidence and compared to samples from the victims and defendants. That's how we approach cases like this at the Innocence Project, and it is how we've helped use DNA to exonerate dozens of wrongfully convicted people in Texas and nationwide.
This is a big job. Ronald Taylor is just one man whose case wasn't even among those identified in the independent audit, since he was convicted in 1995 and it took the Innocence Project several years to secure his upcoming release.
The magnitude of the problem, and the gravity of the consequences, will require involvement and support from across the community. The mayor and police chief were right to support an unprecedented audit of lab cases, and now they need to come together to help resolve these cases. Ultimately, a full-time staff, including an attorney, paralegal and forensic expert, will need to be engaged for two to three years to handle these cases. The Houston Police Department needs to help locate evidence in these cases quickly. The district attorney and the courts need to secure expedited access to police reports and court records from the cases. Local law firms need to step up to provide office space, expertise and resources. Community foundations and other funding sources need to underwrite the modest cost of staffing such an operation for a couple of years.
The district attorney says that many of the 180 of the "major issues" cases have been sent to an administrative judge to locate the original attorneys who represented the defendants at trial or to appoint new attorneys. Our experience in handling cases like this over the last two decades is that often the original attorneys will not have files from the cases, and new court-appointed attorneys will not have the necessary forensic expertise to handle these cases expeditiously or properly.
The HPD crime lab cases can be handled cost-effectively, quickly and reliably. While this is an extremely large project, it is not an impossible one and too much is at stake not to do it right.
Scheck is the co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project. Ellis and Whitmire are Texas state senators representing districts in Harris County.