Houston Chronicle


Aug. 4, 2004

Doubt cast on molestation case

New DNA tests dilute the impact of evidence in the case

By STEVE MCVICKER

Shortly after Lawrence Napper was sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping and sexual assault of a 6-year-old Houston boy, the child's mother suggested an alternative punishment.

"He needs to rot in hell," she said, expressing a sentiment held by numerous people familiar with the case.

But the DNA evidence that was crucial to Napper's conviction was not nearly as overwhelming as it was described at his November 2001 trial, according to samples recently retested as part of the ongoing probe of the shuttered Houston police DNA lab. After two inconclusive results, the most recent analysis revealed possible links between Napper's DNA and that found on the abused child in only two of a possible 13 genetic markers.

Lawrence Napper
Lawrence Napper

"In two of 13 genetic regions there was a very weak indication of an additional DNA component," said DNA expert Elizabeth Johnson, who helped expose the problems at the HPD lab a year and a half ago. "However, there is plenty of (genetic) stuff that Napper has that doesn't show up in that extract. And a lot of other people in the world could be the source of those genetic markers."

Both Napper's attorney and the Harris County prosecutor coordinating the review agree that the findings represent only a weak possible link.

"You can't even do a statistical analysis (on the probability that the DNA was Napper's)," said Assistant District Attorney Marie Munier. "I don't know what it would be, but it wouldn't be very much."

Defense attorney Bob Wicoff said Tuesday that he plans to ask for a new trial based on the results. He said he thinks Napper's reputation — when the child was abducted, Napper was on parole for the rape of two women 20 years earlier — led the Houston Police Department to focus on him too quickly.

"My take on this is that they arrested Napper because they went up and looked at all the registered sex offenders in that neighborhood," said Wicoff. "And they basically said, 'Let's round up the usual suspects.' And they got Napper, and then HPD gave them what they need, and that was the end of the story."

Napper's conduct during his trial did nothing to discredit his general portrayal as a violent sex fiend. Napper erupted several times during the proceedings. After testifying in his own defense, he refused to leave the witness stand and had to be ejected from the courtroom.

He also snapped when the victim's mother attempted to address him after he was sentenced.

"I don't want to hear what she has to say!" Napper yelled. "Y'all framed me. That guy (who committed the crime) is still out there."

Napper repeatedly and emphatically maintained his innocence.

"He was painted in the media as a child raper and monster that needed to be taken off the streets," said Wicoff. "But the more I've come to know Napper and looked at his case, the more I've come to think that these were just the legitimate protests of an innocent guy."

The review of the Napper case is part of the ongoing effort to retest evidence processed by the Houston police lab in about 375 cases. The retests began after an independent audit revealed problems with the lab, including shoddy science and substandard working conditions. The lab was closed in December 2002.

In February 2001, the 6-year-old victim was snatched from a Third Ward convenience store parking lot. He was then taken to a residence — not Napper's — where he was tied to a bed and sexually assaulted.

Napper, a registered sex offender because of his 1981 rape conviction, was arrested later that same month after police received an anonymous tip.

However, while watching the trial on a video monitor in the judge's chambers, the child could not identify Napper as his attacker, although police say that the boy had previously identified Napper in a video lineup.

Police also testified that records of the Global Positioning Satellite device Napper had been ordered to wear while on parole showed Napper had frequently cruised the child's neighborhood.

Assistant District Attorneys Di Glaeser and Denise Nassar, who prosecuted Napper in 2001, could not be reached for comment.

Although Napper had been taken off the GPS monitor prior to the incident, Wicoff said he has discovered that Napper was still wearing another ankle monitor at the time. He said parole records show Napper arrived home seven to 10 minutes after the kidnapping was reported, and that he lived 11 miles away from the child's home.

He acknowledges that law enforcement officials maintain that the kidnapping was reported 30 minutes after it actually happened, which they say would have given Napper enough time to have committed the crime.

Wicoff is also troubled by the fact, confirmed by the district attorney's office, that during the retesting of the DNA in the Napper case, the wrong evidence was somehow sent to laboratory.

The lab discovered the mistake after a retest revealed that the DNA sample — which supposedly had been taken from the child — could not have come from either the victim or Napper.

Additionally, Wicoff said, the police department found additional DNA material in the Napper case archives — after he had been told no other evidence existed.

"It's just basic incompetence," said Wicoff, "and to me it calls into question all of their work."

As a result of the recent revelation about the testing mix-up, Munier has ordered the police department to go back through every retested case to check for possible remaining evidence.

"There is evidently a glitch in how they search or label or enter things. And whether it's the lab or the property room, I don't know," said Munier. "But it makes me want to be a little more sure when we say ... there's nothing left to test."

As for the newly discovered material from the case, she said it is too early to say if anything can be tested for DNA.

Napper, 45, is serving his sentence at the Neal Unit in Amarillo.

steve.mcvicker@chron.com


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