Panel ends crime lab review with criticism
Finds 'no criminal wrongdoing,' but 'moral violations'
By STEVE McVICKER and ROMA KHANNA
August 2, 2003
No indictments were returned, but a Harris County grand jury completing its investigation of the Houston Police Department crime lab Friday criticized how officials dealt with the problem that shook public confidence in the criminal justice system.
"Sadly, we have learned that the knowledge of problems and a lack of action to correct them do not constitute criminal negligence," the panel wrote in a statement released Friday. "Ethics and moral violations, even if they severely violate the public trust, are beyond our jurisdiction."
The second Harris County grand jury investigating the lab requested an extension of its term until Oct. 29. Both grand juries have taken the unusual step of conducting their investigation without assistance from the Harris County district attorney's office, which traditionally leads such probes.
"We voted to do an independent study on our own, because we felt like there would not be any (outside) influence on us that way," said grand jury member Ursula Huhn, a retired Houston Independent School District clerk.
Others involved in the crime lab debate, including the chairman of a state legislative committee conducting an investigation and the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, were more critical.
During its 90-day term, the grand jury issuing its statement Friday heard from numerous witnesses, including crime lab personnel, defense attorneys, DNA experts, and Police Chief C.O. Bradford, who gave more than eight hours of testimony.
Reaction to the statement came from Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who said he appeared before the grand jury, but did n
ot give testimony.
In its report, the panel cited concerns about a potential conflict of interest with Harris County prosecutors, who used HPD's evidence to win convictions in hundreds of cases.
On Thursday, Rosenthal was also questioned by the grand jury still in session. His appearance -- along with grand jury report Friday -- renewed calls for him to recuse himself and his office from the crime lab investigation and allow appointment of a special prosecutor.
The administrative judge of criminal district courts in Harris County on Friday reaffirmed a call for Rosenthal to step aside.
"We (the judges) have said that the next move is his, and I think we're still in that same position," said state District Judge Debbie Mantooth Stricklin, the administrative judge of the criminal district courts of Harris County.
Earlier this year, all of the county's 22 criminal district judges signed a letter asking Rosenthal to step aside. At that time, Rosenthal told the Houston Chronicle that he would clear the way for someone else to lead the investigation of the crime lab "if we get to the point where there is a conflict of interest."
Rosenthal on Friday again said he would not step aside, adding that his office continues to investigate problems at the crime lab.
"The investigations are not over yet," he said, declining to elaborate.
According to the grand jury statement, his office was under the panel's microscope.
"During the course of (the) investigation, we found no vast conspiracies, and no criminal wrongdoing by anyone we looked at in the D.A.'s office," grand jurors wrote.
The district attorney's office started reviewing approximately 1,300 of its convictions in January after the police department shut down the DNA division of its crime lab. That came after an independent audit exposed widespread problems in the lab. Auditors found that lab workers were insufficiently trained, equipment was not maintained and the roof leaked, jeopardizing evidence.
To date, prosecutors have ordered retests in 370 of the 1,300 cases reviewed. In the 33 cases retested thus far, at least three have turned up possible problems with original lab analysis. One retest resulted in the release of a man from prison.
On Friday, Bradford reacted to the grand jury criticism with a brief statement through a spokesman.
"Because there is still an active grand jury looking into HPD's crime lab, it would be improper to comment at this time," the department spokesman said.
Bradford announced last month he would retire as head of the department in September, saying he wanted to spend more time with his pregnant wife. However, the announcement followed news reports on internal police documents suggesting that lab employees had informed Bradford of ongoing problems long before they became public.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, chairman of the legislative committee that has been conducting its own investigation of the crime lab scandal, said his House Committee on General Investigations will hold additional hearings later this month.
"I'm not sure there was criminal activity, but there sure was a lack of interest and concern that is surprising of people in (leadership) positions," said Bailey. "And I guess you can't indict people for that. But they sure failed the public and failed the criminal justice system by not being concerned with what was going on (at the crime lab)."
Stan Schneider with the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association was more critical.
"I think (the blame) includes everyone in the system," he said. "And it's not a ringing endorsement of any of the leaders of our community."
||Truth in Justice