Houston Chronicle

Dec. 31, 2003, 1:37PM

DNA analyst fired from crime lab

Faulty work cited in teen's conviction in rape case

By ROMA KHANNA
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

The DNA analyst whose faulty laboratory work helped send a teenager to prison for rape has been fired, nine months after the defendant was released because new tests excluded him as a suspect in the crime.

Christy Kim, a 21-year Houston Police Department veteran, is the only analyst from the department's troubled crime lab who has been fired since DNA testing was suspended last year.

CHRISTY KIM TIMELINE

1982: Joins the Houston Police Department

1999: Tells jurors during Josiah Sutton's trial that evidence from a rape is an exact DNA match for the defendant.

March 2003: New tests exclude Sutton as a suspect in the case. He is released from prison on bond and seeks a pardon.

September 2003: Kim is suspended with pay.

December 2003: Suspended indefinitely and appeals.

Two high-ranking department supervisors resigned to avoid being fired in June, but no analyst has received more than a seven-day suspension.

Kim was indefinitely suspended Monday for her work in the case against Josiah Sutton, who was a 17-year-old former high school football player when he was convicted of a 1998 rape largely on the weight of DNA evidence that has since been discredited.

"It is about time," said William Thompson, a University of California-Irvine professor who helped expose some of HPD's lab errors. "Slap-on-the-wrist suspensions are not going to solve problems at that lab."

But Kim has maintained that problems with DNA testing at the HPD crime lab are the products of poor management and institutional flaws that left analysts unaware of the latest technology in their field. She filed an appeal of her discipline Tuesday.

"Ms. Kim is just a bench worker who could not have controlled any of the things she is charged with," said Fred Keys, her lawyer. "They were begging for help, and they didn't get it."

During Sutton's trial, Kim's testimony suggested that evidence from the crime scene was an exact match for Sutton's DNA. But retests of the evidence, conducted by a private lab in March, excluded Sutton as a contributor to the samples, discrediting Kim's work.

A review of her analysis found that she could have excluded Sutton as a suspect at the time of the trial and that the match she presented to jurors as unique could, in fact, have been found in any one in 16 black men, according to Thompson.

Sutton's case is one of nearly 400 receiving new DNA testing after HPD shut down the DNA division of its crime lab last year. To date, private labs have analyzed evidence from about 120 cases, with problems such as insufficient samples or statistical discrepancies arising in 23 cases. Sutton is the only defendant who has been released from prison.

Kim was cited for numerous errors in the Sutton case, including failing "to use sound judgment" when she used the wrong calculations to assess the strength of the match between the evidence and Sutton's DNA, according to the Monday letter notifying her of her punishment. She also violated department policy when she tested DNA though she knew she did not meet the FBI's standards for education and training for analysts, the letter says.

An HPD spokesman confirmed that Kim has been fired but declined to comment. Mayor Lee Brown, who signed the letter dismissing her, did not return a call for comment.

Keys said he believes Kim has strong grounds for appeal.

"The way DNA was analyzed at the time is different than the type of tests they use now, and the way she did those calculations, that was lab policy at the time," said Keys, adding that Kim labored under outdated lab protocols. "It would be like trying to get a carpenter to build you a house and telling him he couldn't have a hammer or nails."

Keys notes that Kim was among six crime lab employees who approached former Police Chief C.O. Bradford about problems at the lab in 1999.

"They took their concerns to the highest level," he said. "What more could they have done?"

Keys used these arguments successfully to fight a 14-day suspension that Bradford recommended for Kim in June after an internal police investigation found errors in her work on several other criminal cases. She was cited for misrepresenting the statistical strength of DNA matches, failing to analyze all available evidence in one capital murder case and compiling sloppy paperwork, according to city records.

Kim argued she was merely following department guidelines, saying the lab's problems were the result of systemic problems and poor management, and a review panel reduced her suspension to a written reprimand in September.

Thompson, who has reviewed Kim's work, agreed that DNA technology has improved since Sutton's case was analyzed but said those changes in no way account for the faulty results.

"It has nothing to do with the technology," he said. "She was simply using the wrong calculations, and it is apparent just from looking at her lab work, without even conducting new tests. To suggest that changes in technology account for her errors is simply wrong."

Thompson also noted concerns about Kim's other work, including statistical errors similar to those in the Sutton case that have been exposed in four other cases.

Bob Wicoff, the lawyer who handled Sutton's case when the DNA was retested, said firing Kim is a necessary step if HPD wants to restore faith in its lab.

"I am sorry for Ms. Kim, but it is probably best that she not be around anymore," he said. "The way this whole mess should go is with a clean sweep."


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