Houston Chronicle

Aug. 2, 2004

Crime lab's standards called 'figment'

Convict's lawyer questions truth of past testimony

By STEVE MCVICKER

Seven months after describing the Houston Police Department DNA laboratory as "a total disaster," crime lab analyst Joseph Chu gave a far different assessment during a felony trial.

"Currently, our laboratory is following the FBI guidelines," Chu said in April 2000, testifying that the now-discredited DNA division was meeting national standards. "Everything the FBI sent to us to upgrade qualifications, we followed the guidelines."

Chu made the statements in the trial of Frank Fanniel Jr., who was sentenced to 22 years in prison for aggravated robbery.

"It's like a lot of other things out of the crime lab: a figment of someone's imagination," Fanniel's appellate lawyer Troy McKinney said. "He calls the lab a disaster, then he gets in court under oath and not only is there nothing wrong with the lab, but he falsely tells the jury that the lab was FBI-compliant when he knew good and well that it wasn't. "

Chu, who now does blood alcohol analysis in the recently revamped HPD toxicology lab, declined to comment to the Houston Chronicle.

However, the woman who took over as crime lab chief in October 2003 said that, despite the apparent conflicts in Chu's words, she has confidence in him because of safeguards she has put in place.

Those safeguards, said Irma Rios, include lab employee retraining and quality control implementation, including the monitoring of analysts' courtroom testimony.

"What I am looking at is today and what we've done, and the training we've provided to these employees," Rios said. "I am not familiar with every single thing that has happened in the past."

Before becoming lab chief, Rios was one of the inspectors whose audit led to the DNA lab's closure. The audit concluded that questionable scientific protocols were being used, employees were poorly trained and working conditions were substandard.

DNA analysis provided link

Prosecutors say Fanniel was arrested while attempting to sell items stolen in a robbery and that police found a stocking mask in the trunk of his car. Chu's DNA analysis of saliva that another analyst found on the mask helped to link Fanniel to the crime.

However, in March 2003, after the lab's closure, police and the district attorney's office launched a massive retesting of DNA evidence. Fanniel's case was one of more than 370 selected for review.

Two rounds of retests have failed to substantiate HPD's original DNA finding tying Fanniel to the robbery.

McKinney says he hopes to prove Fanniel innocent. Indeed, when the Chronicle reported the retesting problems in the Fanniel case in November 2003, the paper quoted from a prosecutor's review of the case, that "without DNA we had a strong case for possession of stolen property, but not aggravated robbery."

OPINION CHANGED
September 1999: HPD DNA analyst Joseph Chu and five other lab workers send a letter to Chief C.O. Bradford describing the police department's DNA lab as "a total disaster."
April 2000: Chu testifies in an aggravated robbery trial that the DNA lab meets national standards.
December 2002: The DNA lab is closed after an independent audit reveals multiple problems that threaten the quality of the analysis of evidence used in prosecutions.
June 2003: Chu receives a 14-day suspension after police determine that he incorrectly documented DNA results in two sexual assault cases and incorrectly reported DNA statistics in a capital murder case.
September 2003: The Civil Service Commission reduces Chu's punishment to a written reprimand.
March 2004: Chu is reassigned to the HPD crime lab's toxicology division.

Incorrect documentation

In June 2003, then-Police Chief C.O. Bradford suspended Chu for 14 days after determining that he had incorrectly documented results in two sexual assault cases and inaccurately interpreted DNA statistics in a capital murder case.

However, the city's civil service commission later reduced Chu's punishment to a written reprimand. He now serves as the only blood-alcohol analyst in HPD's toxicology lab, which partially reopened in March.

The lab, which tests blood and urine for drugs and alcohol, was closed in October 2003 after its supervisor failed a competency test.

The previous month, the Chronicle had reported that while Chu was the only analyst in the DNA lab who had taken all required college courses, he once falsely stated in a deposition that his degree was in molecular biology. Chu actually holds a master's degree in chemistry and a bachelor's degree in botany.

Veracity questioned

Now, however, McKinney is raising questions about Chu's veracity on the witness stand. During the Fanniel trial, Chu repeatedly portrayed the HPD DNA lab as first-rate.

"Our laboratory is following the guidelines of the FBI, which is every time," he testified. "Every time the FBI has new rules of what the DNA laboratory has to do to perform DNA analysis, our laboratory follows their guidelines and achieves their goals."

Seven months earlier, his critique of the facility had not been as glowing.

In September 1999, he and five other DNA analysts wrote to Bradford, venting their frustration about conditions that they feared were jeopardizing the quality of their evidence processing.

The letter was followed one month later by a face-to-face meeting between several of those analysts and Bradford, during which the lab's failure to comply with national forensic guidelines was brought to the chief's attention, according to another memo.

In March 2003, Bradford had all of the Police Department's cases purged from the FBI's DNA database.

Perjury suspected

Chu is not the only HPD DNA lab employee accused of giving false testimony in a criminal proceeding. In June, state District Judge Jan Krocker ruled that there was probable cause to believe former DNA lab chief James Bolding had committed aggravated perjury during a June 2002 sexual assault trial.

A rare court of inquiry was convened. It was disbanded, however, after the presiding judge determined that the statute of limitations.

McKinney believes having Chu in the department's toxicology division sends a bad message.

"The message this sends is that you can't rely on anything they say," said McKinney, "because they're going to get up there and testify to whatever they think needs to be said to make the case, or whatever someone else tells them is the case, whether they know it to be true or not."

steve.mcvicker@chron.com


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