Houston Chronicle

March 28, 2003, 10:42PM

Web could make injustice visible

By THOM MARSHALL
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

AT ONE OF OUR recent meetings here I mentioned a plan, still in the early stages of discussion, to develop a Web site for collecting and dispensing information about the activities in our public courtrooms and the people involved in all sides of them.

It would be an Internet address that any of us could visit to find a wide variety of statistical analyses on sentencing, setting of bonds, trials, pleas, prison sentences, probations, defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, etc.

The records would be updated on a regular basis and presented in a format created by a professional Web site designer who knows how to process information so that we could quickly find what we were looking for and we could understand it.

Local computer services entrepreneur Bill Addington said he would create the Web site if enough individuals and organizations express an interest. He said the rapidly growing and evolving computer world is ideally suited for such a public service.

Interest from California

A fellow in Southern California e-mailed to say his chapter of the NAACP is interested in learning more -- as more becomes available -- about setting up a Web site to monitor courts out there. He said he has been keeping track of people who have been convicted and sentenced to long prison terms and then later freed "after being found completely innocent."

There were some other e-mails from California, too. Not surprising, considering California courts put nearly as many people in prison as do Texas courts.

However, you can bet your hot tub that no place in California would come close to matching Harris County in the number of people put in prison using questionable evidence. That's because any evidence processed by our HPD crime lab -- DNA, ballistics, drugs, whatever -- must be considered questionable until and unless it can be retested by a qualified lab.

Meanwhile, there is no question that people were wrongly sent to prison by Harris County courts. One already has been released. The question is, how many more should be?

Another question is, how long will it take to set them free?

And yet another question is, how much will all the mistakes eventually cost taxpayers?

This lab scandal is a wake-up call. For years while we weren't watching, the problem grew like toxic mold.

The lab is proof that our police and court operations require constant and careful public scrutiny.

Struggle to clear his record

I talked to a fellow this week who took a plea-bargain deal a few years ago because police and prosecutors convinced him they could convict him and send him to prison. Pleading got him five years probation. Then some startling new evidence surfaced to prove he was innocent.

His efforts to get justice in the courts have been long and frustrating. He believes the prosecutor and judge are using postponements to avoid doing anything until after his probation is all served and hoping he then will just give up the battle.

Remember the fellow who got tossed in jail, accused of an armed robbery? He paid $1,000 to a bail bondsman to get out, and then a few days later police caught the real robber and dropped charges. Not only was the guy out that thousand bucks, if publicity hadn't drawn some lawyers who volunteered pro-bono services, he would have had to pay a bunch more money to get his arrest record expunged.

Monitoring court activities on a Web site isn't enough to stop injustices like these two examples, but it could help us spot potential problems. Maybe we would notice some pattern in the numbers of guilty pleas in a particular court or involving a particular prosecutor. Maybe we would see so many arrests being expunged it would raise a red flag.

One thing dependably evident to come from the police lab mess is this: The closer we watch our justice system, the better we can make it.

Thom Marshall's e-mail address is thom.marshall@chron.com.

How the System Works
Truth in Justice