Oct. 4, 2007, 7:45PM
Man exonerated 14 years after rape conviction
Mix-up on DNA deals HPD lab another blow
By MIKE TOLSON and ROMA KHANNA
Few people listened when Ronald Gene Taylor declared himself innocent of a rape charge 14 years ago. But the Harris County District Attorney's Office finally agreed with him Wednesday, acknowledging that the scandal-plagued Houston Police Department crime lab was responsible for sending yet another wrong person to prison.
Incarcerated since being picked out of a lineup in June 1993, Taylor was exonerated by new DNA testing this summer that showed another man was guilty of the crime. Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said he was sickened when he got the news late last week of the wrongful conviction.
"I feel awful," Rosenthal said. "Nobody wants to have an innocent person wrongfully convicted and sent to prison. It's a very regrettable thing."
The exoneration of the 47-year-old Taylor is another blow to the tattered reputation of the Houston Police Department crime lab, which has been rocked by scandal in recent years over the reliability of its testing and quality controls.
Rosenthal said he will work quickly toward Taylor's release and pardon. A hearing before state District Judge Denise Collins is scheduled for Oct. 12. Collins could release him on a personal recognizance bond at that time.
Lived near crime scene
The testing was done at the request of the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal clinic that assists prisoners in getting DNA evidence reviewed. It has worked on the case since 1998, when it was contacted by Taylor's stepfather, who was pressing his son's claim of innocence.
The HPD crime lab originally reported that a bed sheet it tested did not contain semen, a conclusion that led an appeals judge to deny a request for additional testing. Absent conclusive forensic evidence, Taylor's conviction was based on an eyewitness identification by the victim and the fact that he lived nearby.
New tests on the sheet, done this summer by ReliaGene Technologies, yielded the DNA profile not of Taylor but another convicted sex offender serving time in Texas prisons. The statute of limitations for prosecuting that case has expired, Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal said the victim's bad ID was understandable.
"The two men are remarkably similar in appearance," he said. "One can see how a mistake in identification can be made."
Fleeting glimpse, in dark
According to Taylor's lawyers, the victim never got a good look at her attacker. She felt some of his features and saw him briefly as he was fleeing her apartment. That glimpse came in a dark room lit only by a nearby street light.
She viewed the lineup in the presence of one police officer without witnesses or attorneys for the defendant, Taylor's lawyers claim. While watching the video, the victim suddenly recalled that the perpetrator had a tooth missing — not part of her initial description — and she identified Taylor, who had been placed in the lineup because a neighbor interviewed by police recalled seeing him in the area the night of the assault.
The Innocence Project has been critical of convictions based primarily on eyewitness identification by strangers. Bolstered by numerous studies that show the fallibility of such IDs, it has called for major changes in the ways police departments present lineups to crime victims.
Taylor, the eldest of five children who were raised near Huntsville, had moved to Houston about six months before the May 1993 attack in which he was accused, according to his mother, Dorothy Henderson.
"We had concerns from the beginning that this was a case of mistaken identification," said Shelton Sparks, the attorney who handled Taylor's appeal. "But we did not pursue DNA testing because we did not believe there was any evidence to be tested based on the (HPD analyst's) testimony at trial."
Family didn't give up
As Taylor served his sentence in a prison in Tennessee Colony, his family worked to prove he had been wrongly convicted. They got lucky when the Innocence Project agreed to take on the case.
"He always said that he was innocent, and I kept the faith that one day it would come through that it was not him," Henderson said. "We have suffered so much, but soon, now, when I can hug him and know that he is free, we will have peace."
Henderson plans to attend next week's court hearing, after which she hopes to take him home to Huntsville "for a home-cooked meal."
Assistant District Attorney Jack Roady said he will work with Innocence Project lawyers to agree on findings of fact to present to Collins. If she signs off on them, Taylor's habeas corpus petition will be presented to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for final action.
Assuming Taylor is granted a pardon based on innocence, he would be eligible for compensation from the state at a rate of $50,000 per year of incarceration, for a total of $600,000 or more.
Taylor's is the third conviction to crumble since scrutiny of work from the Houston crime lab began late in 2002 after news reports and an audit exposed poorly trained personnel and inaccurate work in the DNA division. Two other men were released from prison after new DNA tests discredited HPD's analyses.
Josiah Sutton was released from prison in March 2003 when DNA tests challenged the HPD work that helped secure his conviction in a 1998 rape. Sutton received a pardon on the basis of innocence and the state has compensated him with more than $118,000 for the time he served.
George Rodriguez served more than 17 years in prison in the 1987 rape of a 14-year-old girl before new forensic evidence discredited the HPD crime lab work on his case and led prosecutors to dismiss the case against him.
Since HPD's crime lab problems first came to light, errors have been found in several types of analyses, including those of firearms and of controlled substances, casting doubt on thousands of convictions and unsettling the local justice system.
Faulty evidence in the cases against Rodriguez and Taylor included serology, the science of typing body fluids that was a precursor to DNA testing.
Independent investigators who studied the crime lab over 26 months and issued a final report in June have called the work of the HPD serology division among the most troubling and problematic work from the crime lab.
Their scientists identified about 180 cases in which HPD serology work had "major issues" and called for a review of those cases to determine whether the forensic evidence played an essential role in securing convictions. Taylor's case was not among those highlighted in the report.
The serologist who handled Taylor's case worked in the lab from 1993 until 1996.
Call for systematic review
The investigative team recommended the appointment of an independent "special master" to review those cases. Local officials rejected the proposal. Instead, HPD and the district attorney's office have begun their own reviews of those cases.
Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project, said Taylor's case should highlight the need for a systematic review.
"The Ronald Taylor case ought to be a galvanizing example of what has to be done to correct the historical injustices that have occurred because of the Houston crime lab," Scheck said.
Scheck, other lawyers and local elected officials have begun working on a proposal to form a panel of lawyers to review these cases. Rosenthal was receptive to the idea of such a panel, Scheck said, and the lawyers have contacted the presiding judge over Harris County's courts, state District Judge Debbie Mantooth Stricklin, about how to proceed with the proposal.
"There has got to be an expeditious way to go through these cases and determine whether more testing is possible and appropriate," Scheck said. "That sort of vetting requires expertise, competence and an infrastructure to do that."