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DNA Lab's Woes Cast Doubt on 68 Prison Terms

Forensic science at a Houston police unit was plagued by problems. The inmates for whom retesting is ordered include 17 on death row.

March 31, 2003|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — In the exacting field of forensic science, the Houston Police Department's DNA crime lab was a mess.

Analysts botched simple tests. They misinterpreted data. They stored evidence in a room where the ceiling leaked so badly that, one stormy night, 34 DNA samples were destroyed.

"I have never seen such a collective bunch of incompetents in my life," said Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, former head of the DNA lab at the medical examiner's office in Harris County, which includes Houston. "They don't understand how the testing should be done or how it should be interpreted. None of them can think it through any better than the others. They just don't get it."

Widespread problems at the police lab -- including a poorly trained staff and questionable methodology -- were uncovered during an independent audit in December. The lab shut down in January, and the district attorney's office began a massive review of cases involving DNA work by police lab analysts. So far, prosecutors have ordered retesting in the cases of 68 prisoners, 17 of them on Texas' death row.

No inmate executed by the state was convicted using DNA processed by the lab, said Assistant Dist. Atty. Marie Munier, who is leading the review of old cases.

Labs in Montana and Washington also have come under fire in recent months. But the blunders here in Harris County -- where an aggressive district attorney's office has sent more people to the death chamber than all but two states -- are especially alarming.

"People have lost confidence in the criminal justice system here," said state Rep. Kevin Bailey, head of a legislative committee investigating problems at the lab. "You almost have a picture of the Keystone Kops, but it's not funny because you're dealing with people's lives. There are bound to be people who are innocent and in jail."

In a recent letter to Gov. Rick Perry, Houston Mayor Lee P. Brown urged a moratorium on those death penalty cases in which evidence from the police crime lab was used. "This is the right thing to do," Brown wrote.

So far, DNA retesting has been completed in just one case. Josiah Sutton was convicted of raping a Houston woman in 1998 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. On March 12, a judge released him on bond after results showed he could not have committed the crime. Sutton, 21, is seeking a pardon from the governor.

Sutton was lucky, his lawyer said, because a small piece of evidence was preserved that could be retested. Contrary to industry practice, the Houston police lab often used all the samples during its initial tests, leaving nothing for defense lawyers on appeal.

"I don't know if they were so ignorant they didn't know what they were doing, or if they were covering their tracks," the attorney, Bob Wicoff, said.

In a hearing last month before the legislative panel, DNA lab section chief Jim Bolding defended his eight-person staff, describing them as overworked and under-funded. The number of cases handled by analysts at the police crime lab are "far above industry standard," he said. "We do not have sufficient funding, staff or wherewithal to do the amount of work that has come into the crime laboratory."

Johnson, who now works as a DNA expert for a California firm, countered that "there is no one else doing work this badly, and there are a lot of cash-strapped laboratories out there."

She traces the problems to a core staff that has been at the lab since it opened in 1992. "They taught each other their bad habits," she said. "They are totally unwilling to want to learn to do better. I would offer to show them, and they'd scowl at me .... Every single case I ever reviewed of theirs had at least one serious error -- and sometimes more than one error."

The lab analysts, Johnson said, were especially bad at extracting DNA from mixed sources. In a rape case, for example, vaginal cells are separated from sperm cells to get clean DNA profiles.

"If you follow the protocols that are published out there and are widely available, you get a nice separation," she said. "These people cannot do that. No one seems to be able to grasp how to do this correctly."

The muddled test results lead to sloppy DNA analysis that can incriminate the wrong person, she said.

Munier said prosecutors were stunned to learn about the lab's slipshod practices. "For years, you think the people at the laboratory know what they're doing and are giving you accurate testing results. We're not DNA experts, so we just have to trust them. Will we be this naive again? I don't think so," she said.

The case reviews could take an additional four months, Munier said. State lawmakers have asked the FBI to oversee the task and are drafting legislation providing for state regulation of crime labs. In the meantime, the Texas Department of Public Safety is removing all Houston police evidence from the national DNA database.

"It's not that nobody knew about the problems," Bailey said. "Nobody cared as long as they got a conviction. No one wanted to take responsibility until it became a public issue."

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