STATE OF INJUSTICE
Crime lab investigation reveals indifference to right and wrong throughout the criminal justice system.
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
A VISITOR to the Houston Police Department's crime lab will tour rooms full of illegal drugs stacked floor to ceiling. At one point the assembled bales of marijuana, packages of cocaine and heroin, and plastic bottles of soda and codeine (a heady outlaw cocktail for which Houston is known) weighed 28 tons.
Testing and identifying these substances accounts for three-fourths of the crime lab's work. If defense counsel neglected to have the evidence independently verified, a mistaken identification could send an innocent person to prison. The chance of error would be high even if all the lab's drug testers were skilled and conscientious. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. A special master brought in to investigate the crime lab's scandalous shortcomings found that in several instances drug test results were invalid and perhaps fraudulent. Two analysts were accused of faking the results. Because the people running the Police Department cared so little for justice, the employees were allowed to stay.
The suspected instances of "dry-labbing" (falsely making the test results match the charges against a defendant) join a list of botched DNA and ballistics analyses, failed serology proficiency tests and generally unreliable and poor quality work performed by the lab. The lab was chronically underfunded. Analysts received little or no scientific training. Water leaking through the roof and invading rats were allowed to contaminate evidence.
Flawed lab work sent at least two innocent people to prison. The Police Department's failure to disclose and correct the lab's shoddy standards deprived countless more defendants of a fair trial as juries were led to believe that the crime lab handled evidence and reached conclusions according to the discipline's highest standards.
This shocking state of affairs could not have endured for at least 15 years without the willful ignorance, negligence and wrongdoing of officials throughout Harris County's justice system. Mayors and police chiefs budgeted too little for the crime lab; Police Department supervisors ignored analytical errors and tolerated cheating. Crime lab employees reached false conclusions, misinterpreted forensic evidence and misled juries about their knowledge and skills.
In the Harris County district attorney's office, some prosecutors knew about cheating on crime lab tests but did not inform their colleagues or the defense bar, as required by law. When criminal violations by lab personnel were alleged, prosecutors declined to seek indictments, deciding instead to leave bad enough alone.
The courts also bear blame. Some trial judges prevented defense lawyers from impeaching the quality of lab tests and truth of analysts' testimony. Appellate courts in come cases refused to correct blatant injustice by ordering new trials or freeing defendants based on new evidence of innocence.
Absent, amid the discovery of repeated and extensive miscarriages of justice, is a sense of public outrage and shame that our justice system could be so permissive of wrong and so indifferent to right. Unless Houstonians demand justice from those charged with carrying it out, more innocent defendants will be punished while the guilty walk free.
This is the first of several editorials concerning flaws in the criminal justice system in Texas and Harris County.