Houston Chronicle

Aug. 27, 2004, 12:08PM

NEW EVIDENCE FUROR HITS HPD

Mislabeled boxes may be final straw for full-scale probe

By ROMA KHANNA

The Houston Police Department has discovered evidence from thousands of cases that was improperly tagged and lost in its property room, Chief Harold Hurtt said Thursday, suggesting that problems with handling evidence may go back 25 years.

The evidence was contained in 280 mislabeled boxes that were found in the department's property room last August. But the boxes sat unopened for a year, even as an ongoing Harris County District Attorney's Office effort to retest DNA from 379 cases stalled because of missing evidence in 20 cases.

Investigators began opening the boxes last week and found an array of evidence that ranged from a fetus and human body parts to clothes and a bag of Cheetos.

The boxes were labeled with the numbers of individual cases. Now, HPD officials said, it appears that evidence from as many as 8,000 cases, from 1979 to 1991, was packed into the 280 cartons.

The discovery, the latest in a long list of problems at HPD's crime lab, may move officials closer to an independent investigation of the entire operation.

For the first time, Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal was among those seeking a full-scale independent investigation of the crime lab. Rosenthal had resisted previous calls for such a probe.

FORGOTTEN EVIDENCE
• Boxes containing improperly stored evidence: 280
• Cases with evidence in the boxes: 8,000
• Dates of cases: 1979-1991
• Time it will take to catalog the evidence: 12 months
"I am now a firm believer that I was initially wrong and there needs to be an in-depth audit over there by some outside group," Rosenthal said. "I don't think the special master ought to have a blank check, but I want to do whatever it takes to resolve these problems."

Hurtt said he will bring in outside experts to look at the department's procedures. An HPD spokesman said Hurtt wants to have a former prosecutor act as a special master, a format that would give the investigation autonomy.

Lawyer Barry Scheck, who founded the Innocence Project in New York City, and who repeatedly has called for an independent investigation of HPD's crime lab, said the special master "must be able to go where the evidence leads. Nothing short of that will restore public confidence."

The discovery of the forgotten boxes of evidence comes as questions about the analysis in a 1987 rape case have widened doubts about the quality of the crime lab's work.

The lab first came under scrutiny in November 2002, when DNA testing was suspended amid questions about its accuracy. Retesting of evidence from 379 cases was ordered. Since then, concerns have been raised about several other lab divisions, including toxicology and ballistics.

Hurtt said the full implications of the uncovered evidence cache remained unclear Thursday because investigators so far have sifted through only about 5 percent of the boxes' contents. The evidence could affect cases of convicted defendants seeking DNA testing under a state law, as well as unsolved crimes in which evidence has never been exposed to new technologies that could help authorities close the cases.

"It is very significant in the fact that we don't know what we have in those boxes," Hurtt said. "Were they cases that are open? We don't know yet. The bottom line is to ensure that justice is done — whether it is proving people innocent or convicting others."

Hurtt said the boxes were not opened because they appeared to be from closed cases that did not include DNA materials and because investigators were committed to other investigations.

The boxes were opened last week, Hurtt said, as part of an effort to examine department procedures for cataloging evidence.

All of the boxes came to the property room from the HPD crime lab, where analysts and other employees had mislabeled them.

HPD personnel have begun the painstaking effort of unpacking all of the boxes and regrouping the materials, case by case. The 280 boxes, many of them splitting apart, fill a room on HPD's 24th floor.

HPD personnel are working two shifts a day, seven days a week to catalog the evidence, a process officials said could take a year to complete.

As they archive the materials, HPD investigators also will look for evidence from cases in which convicted defendants are requesting DNA testing under a state law that took affect in 2001.

Assistant District Attorney Roe Wilson said 200 to 300 such post-conviction DNA tests have been requested in Harris County. She said she knew of no cases where missing evidence was a problem, but added, "I can't say it won't come up."

roma.khanna@chron.com


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