Monday, December 10, 2007

Harris County getting help in review of troubled crime lab

December 7, 2007

By Juan A. Lozano, Associated Press Writer

A legal group that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions is teaming up with Harris County in its efforts to review cases with questionable blood analysis work by the Houston Police Department's troubled crime lab.

The Innocence Project of Texas will help lawyers heading up a county review of 180 serology cases identified as having "major issues," officials said Friday.

The cases were identified in a final report earlier this year from a special investigator hired by the city of Houston to investigate the lab.

The Innocence Project of Texas chief counsel Jeff Blackburn said his organization usually finds itself at odds with government officials and prosecutors. His group is an offshoot of the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal clinic that has helped exonerate inmates across the country.

"This is a historic process that Harris County is getting involved in," Blackburn said.

The Houston crime lab's work has been under scrutiny since 2002, when the DNA section was shut down. Inaccuracies were later found in four other lab divisions that test firearms, body fluids and controlled substances. The DNA section has since been reopened.

Three inmates have been released from prison because of mistakes by the lab: two men wrongfully convicted of rape and another man convicted of kidnapping and rape whom prosecutors decided not to retry.

The cases being reviewed, some of which date to the 1980s, include several death row inmates and others convicted of violent crimes such as robbery and rape.

Retired state District Judge Mary Bacon, who is presiding over the probe, praised the Innocence Project's help with the review during a meeting Friday with defense attorneys and prosecutor Marie Munier, whose office had pledged its cooperation.

The Innocence Project of Texas will provide 40 to 50 law students in Houston, Dallas and Lubbock who can help attorneys review case files and sort through legal documents.

It'll be similar to what they have done in Dallas County, where the Innocence Project has teamed up with officials to review more than 400 cases in which inmates have requested DNA testing. Over the past five years, DNA tests have exonerated 14 inmates in Dallas County, Blackburn said.

In the first three months of the Dallas review, 57 cases have been evaluated. Of these, seven will have DNA testing, said Blackburn, an Amarillo-based attorney.

"We've learned that's a very efficient way of doing it," he said. "We can do the factory side of the work."

Bob Wicoff, one of the Houston defense lawyers assigned to lead the review, said the Innocence Project's help will be invaluable. It's impractical to either have attorneys assigned to each case and have them do all the work or to file legal challenges to each case without first doing research.

After Harris County judges announced plans in October to conduct the review, Wicoff held videoconference meetings with the 160 inmates, from the 180 cases, who are still in prison. All but four agreed to have their cases reopened.

Of the remaining 20 cases, half are inmates who have been executed and half have been freed from prison.

Wicoff said he will try to contact the freed inmates and see if they want to be included in the probe. But he doesn't have the resources or time to look into the cases of executed inmates.

Since the videoconferences, Wicoff has visited with 14 inmates. A second attorney, Christopher Downey, has been appointed to help Wicoff.

No comments: