Houston Chronicle

New DNA tests weaken 4 cases
HPD shown to be 'just way off' in one case; 5 others validated

 By Roma Khanna; August 2, 2003


New DNA tests on evidence from four cases originally processed by the Houston Police Department's troubled crime lab have found significantly weaker links between the evidence and the defendants than the first results.

The retests released Friday show that HPD analysts drastically miscalculated matches, overestimating their strength to the point that one prosecutor worries a defendant was incorrectly influenced to plead guilty to a sexual assault. The prosecutor says HPD analysts touted DNA evidence at trial that, in light of the new tests, is "almost insignificant."

Five other DNA tests released Friday support HPD's initial decision to include the defendants as suspects, including the case against one death row inmate.

In the case of Calvin Jermany, HPD analysts concluded the match was so exact that only one in more than 5 million other men also would match, suggesting that no one else in Harris County would have the same profile. Jermany pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a child after he was confronted with those results, and was sentenced to four years in prison.

But new tests by a private lab show that 1 in about 6,000 people could have contributed to the evidence sample that HPD linked to Jermany. In Harris County, more than 500 would fit that profile.

"This is one where they were just way off on their stats," said Assistant District Attorney Marie Munier, who is overseeing the effort to review more than 1,300 cases with DNA processed by HPD's lab. "We cannot exclude him as a suspect, but we are down to the level where the match is almost insignificant.

"The prosecutor who reviewed this case is concerned that (Jermany) would not have pleaded guilty had we not had that DNA from HPD."

HPD has declined to comment on new tests because of ongoing investigations into problems at the crime lab, where DNA testing was suspended last year amid questions about the accuracy and quality of the lab's work.

Jermany's attorney, Alex Azzo, said the new tests concerned him but he needed time to review them before he could elaborate.

"Decisions that lawyers and clients make are often based on what things appear to be and not necessarily what the real facts are," Azzo said.

Jermany's case is one of 370 being retested because of problems at the HPD crime lab. An independent audit exposed numerous problems at the lab last year, including sloppy scientific technique, an undertrained staff and conditions ripe for evidence contamination. Since then prosecutors have begun a review of more than 1,300 cases processed by the DNA division.

New tests were released in eight other cases Friday, including several that are undergoing second and third rounds of tests because Identigene, the private lab conducting the tests, hadn't made conclusive findings.

The lab uncovered problems similar to those with Jermany's case in the case against Jose Manriquez, who was sentenced to 45 years in prison for the sexual assault of a child under 14. Police said they found DNA on the victim's face that matched Manriquez's.

Identigene's first test was inconclusive, so the lab went back to a sample partially processed by HPD -- a decision criticized by defense lawyers and seen as troublesome by many scientists. The second tests produced an extremely weak profile to which any one in 138 people could have contributed. While the tests did not exclude Manriquez, the match was much weaker than HPD's.

Munier said she will order tests on any additional evidence from the case and will ask Identigene to review HPD's original paperwork.

"We want explanations when there are differences like this," she said.

The recent set of retested cases also highlights problems with reassessing evidence from HPD in addition to the serious discrepancies in the computation of matches.

In some cases Identigene encountered evidence that has degraded or may have been altered by cross-contamination, Munier said. In others, HPD failed to send the essential evidence to Identigene, prolonging questions about the cases and spending city money to test secondary materials.

In the case of Frank Fanniel, who was convicted in a home invasion, HPD analysts testified they found his DNA on a stocking that he was said to have worn during the robbery.

"That testimony was a critical factor," said Ricky Anderson, Fanniel's defense attorney. "Their representation was that it was his DNA on the stocking without a question."

But Identigene's tests on samples from the stocking that had partially been processed by HPD -- and showed evidence of degradation -- were inconclusive. The lab could not exclude Fanniel as a suspect, but it could not develop any sort of DNA profile from the evidence. The lab will now look at other evidence from the case, Munier said.

Identigene also failed to find any DNA on some evidence from the case against Kennedy Lancaster, who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl after he was notified of HPD's findings. But essential parts of the evidence, including the girl's clothes and parts of the rape kit where HPD found DNA, have not yet been tested.

"We are having some communication mishaps about what items need to be tested, but we are working through them," Munier said. "We have urged HPD to contact prosecutors before they send evidence out for testing."

Prosecutors also released additional tests in the case of Harry Bellaire, who was convicted of raping a woman vaginally. Bellaire maintains they engaged only in consensual oral sex. HPD has sent numerous items to Identigene for new testing, including swatches from the woman's clothes. But to the dismay of Bellaire's attorney, they have never tested swabs from the rape kit.

The tests released Friday again found a strong match for Bellaire's DNA on the woman's clothes but again did not include swabs from the rape kit.

Identigene also completed tests in the following cases, finding strong matches for the defendant in each:

  • Perry Eugene Williams was sentenced to death in the murder of Matthew Carter, a first-year Baylor College of Medicine student who was abducted at a Houston video store.
  • Richard Pannell, who was convicted of burglary.
  • Jessie Henry Shrod, who was convicted of aggravated sexual assault.
  • Hyman Walker, who was convicted of sexual assault.
  • Albert Small, who was convicted of aggravated sexual assault.

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