Houston Chronicle

June 1, 2005, 11:41PM

HPD admits it failed to review suspect lab work

Report alleges hundreds of cases were ignored for 'reasons unknown'

By STEVE MCVICKER
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Despite knowing about the suspect work of a crime-laboratory analyst in at least two drug cases, the Houston Police Department failed to conduct a review of hundreds of other cases handled by the employee because of "reasons unknown," according to a written statement released by department officials Wednesday.

The allegations of fabricated work by the analyst came to light Tuesday in a report issued by an independent investigator hired to probe widespread problems in the HPD crime lab.

Among other things, the report accused two analysts in the crime lab's controlled substances division of "drylabbing," or concocting results, in two cases each without conducting tests on evidence.

The work was conducted between 1998 and 2000 during the tenure of former Chief C.O. Bradford. In all four cases, supervisors discovered the problems before the analyses were used in court.

In the statement released Wednesday, HPD Executive Assistant Chief Martha Montalvo said the department had reviewed 574 cases processed by former analyst James E. Price, who has since resigned. But they could not explain why no such review had been conducted in connection with the work of analyst Vipul H. Patel — who was suspended for three days but continues to work in the crime lab.

Patel's work between 1999 and 2003 will soon also come under scrutiny.

The Houston Chronicle was unable to contact Price or Patel on Wednesday.

"The review will look to see if proper processing and analyses were conducted in accordance with established procedures," said Montalvo.

Whether the department or special investigator Michael Bromwich will review Patel's work is unclear, a department spokesman said.

A former Justice Department inspector general, Bromwich was hired earlier this year to investigate the practices and work of the troubled crime lab.

Those troubles began in December 2002 after an outside audit found numerous problems at the department's DNA lab, which remains shuttered.

Since then, problems have surfaced in the lab's toxicology, ballistics and serology divisions.

On Tuesday, the controlled substances division was added to that list and potentially could be the most troublesome as it is responsible for 75 percent of the work conducted at the crime lab.

Shoddy or criminal?

In his report, Bromwich described drylabbing as "the most egregious form of scientific misconduct that can occur in a forensic laboratory."

On Wednesday, Bromwich confirmed that, at the time the alleged drylabbing by Price was discovered, the department's findings were forwarded to the Harris County District Attorney's Office for possible prosecution.

Two prosecutors declined to pursue the cases.

"I think it was extremely ill-advised to keep people who had engaged in such fraudulent activity in roles in the crime lab where they continued to perform scientific analysis," said the investigator.

Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said Wednesday that, after reviewing the case files, he is satisfied with the decision of the two prosecutors not to take the analysts to court. He said that, in one of the cases, Price apparently violated analytical procedure by comparing a drug to its depiction in a pharmaceutical reference book.

"I'm sure he just looked at them and went by the scorings on the pills, as opposed to actually doing the tests," said Rosenthal, who took over the office in 2001.

In the second case, Rosenthal characterized the work as sloppy rather than criminal.

"Apparently they were both handled properly," Rosenthal said about the investigations by the DA's office.

Tampering allegations

Other legal observers, however, are not as confident — especially when it comes to Patel's work. In cases where the analyst's reports contend that tests had been performed when, in fact, none had, criminal charges could have possibly been filed, according to a former appellate court justice.

Attorney Murry Cohen, formerly a justice on the 1st Court of Appeals, says he thinks that actions of the two analysts may have constituted tampering with a governmental record.

"I don't know why you couldn't argue that, why a jury could not find that, and court could not hold that that's sufficient (for a conviction)," Cohen said. He also noted that the statute of limitations on the offense has expired, so no charges in those cases can be filed.

Stanley Schneider, past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said the problems found in the controlled substances division represent the first time the district attorney's office has been found to have had prior knowledge of problems at that lab.

"There have been complaints for a long time that the (crime lab) investigation conducted by the district attorney's office was not a fair and impartial investigation," Schneider said. "And this confirms it."

Bromwich said he will explore whether defense counsels in other cases were advised of the allegations brought against the analysts.

"Such information would pretty plainly be impeachment material," he said.

Bromwich also said his team will continue to explore to what extent the DNA lab was affected during the six years it went without a supervisor.

"We don't yet know in how many cases the analysis was adversely affected, and to what degree," he said.

roma.khanna@chron.com steve.mcvicker@chron.com



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