Houston Chronicle

Aug. 7, 2004

Officials urge special probe of crime lab

Famed attorney weighs in on call for major reforms at HPD facility

By STEVE MCVICKER

In the wake of new allegations of problems at the Houston Police Department crime laboratory, politicians, activists and a nationally known defense lawyer urged local officials Friday to appoint a special master to conduct a large-scale review of evidence processed by HPD analysts.

"What we need here in Houston is the appointment of a special master, an independent person ... just to see if any mistakes in those cases might have led to wrongful convictions," said attorney Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project in New York City.

"What we're talking about is 25 years of bad science (at the HPD lab)," said Scheck.

Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who has consistently opposed the appointment of a special prosecutor to conduct a grand jury investigation independent of his office, says that he would not oppose the appointment of a special master.

"It's OK with me," he said, if the city agrees to pay for it.

Through a spokesman Friday, Mayor Bill White said he wants Police Chief Harold Hurtt to confer with Rosenthal before making a decision about a special master. However, at a press conference earlier in the day, when asked about a special master, Hurtt deferred to his crime-lab chief, Irma Rios.

When asked about the possibility of another massive retesting effort, Rios said it should be up to anyone with questions about his or her case to request retesting in accordance with state law.

As the result of an audit that found shoddy science and substandard working conditions at the facility, the lab was closed in December 2002. The closure triggered the retesting of DNA evidence in about 375 cases. Still looming is an even more massive retesting effort at the HPD toxicology lab, which also was closed for several months last year.

In one case, defendant Josiah Sutton was freed from prison last year after DNA retesting cleared him of rape.

Earlier this week, the Chronicle reported that questionable crime-lab practices in two cases cast some doubt on the convictions of Lawrence Napper, who was found guilty of kidnapping and rape, and Frank Fanniel, convicted of aggravated robbery.

That news was followed by the Innocence Project filing a motion Thursday to vacate the conviction of George Rodriguez, who in 1987 was sentenced to 60 years in prison for aggravated sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl. DNA testing conducted for the first time on pubic hairs found on the victim's panties now point to a man who was also a suspect during the original investigation, according to court documents.

The motion to vacate Rodriguez's conviction was also based on the findings of six forensic experts who issued a report stating the conclusions reached in the case by the HPD crime serology division were "scientifically unsound."

The serology analysis was performed by James Bolding, the former DNA lab chief who left the job to avoid being fired, and Christy Kim, whom the city attempted to fire.

Hurtt, who took over as police chief earlier this year, said Friday his department has launched a review of the Rodriguez case.

Scheck suggested that Houston would be well-served to model a special master system after one in Cleveland, which is facing its own crime-lab controversy. Under the Cleveland plan, findings of the special master are passed on to the mayor, district attorney, trial court judges and the local defense bar.

Scheck also believes that hair and fingerprint analysis by the HPD lab should be included in any review.

The New York lawyer expressed concern that some of Houston's problems may have involved capital murder defendants who have already been executed.

steve.mcvicker@chron.com



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