April 5, 2013
Report: Texas crime lab worker promoted despite poor work
By Jim Vertuno
A state police crime lab scientist whose shoddy work may have tainted thousands of drug cases had been promoted despite a history of problems doing accurate and timely work, according a review by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
A commission report adopted Friday found that Houston crime lab worker Jonathan Salvador struggled with chemistry, was told to correct his work in about a third of his cases and, according to his supervisors, routinely scrambled to keep up with monthly work expectations.
Salvador was suspended in 2012 after his work at the Department of Public Safety lab came into question. More than a dozen convictions have already been overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals as officials grapple with the possible scope of the impact of Salvador’s work, which involved nearly 5,000 cases in 36 counties.
“The fact that this guy went on as long as he did without ever being figured out is appalling,” said Jeff Blackburn, an attorney with the Innocence Project of Texas. “Once DPS figured it out, they did the right thing, but they should have gotten wise to him long before.”
The commission staff said Salvador was invited to attend Friday’s meeting but did not respond.
Salvador’s work came under scrutiny after a co-worker told a supervisor he suspected Salvador used test results from one drug case to support a conclusion in a separate one. Investigators then retested 100 other cases Salvador worked on and found more errors.
In April 2012, DPS sent an email to prosecutors telling them of the agency’s review and attaching a list of affected cases. The email also said prosecutors could submit any evidence from these cases for retesting by another DPS lab worker.
The forensics commission report says Salvador’s supervisors had noted that about 1 in 3 reports he turned in needed some sort of correction, from simple administrative fixes to more serious ones, including technical problems with his findings. The report notes that other lab workers had a correction rate of less than 10 percent.
Evaluations noted that Salvador struggled with an “overall understanding of chemistry, especially in difficult cases,” the report said. Supervisors described Salvador’s struggles as “very systemic” and his work as “right on the edge” of acceptability.
The report also found that Salvador was promoted and given a pay raise because he was friendly and a hard worker who tried to improve. Supervisors didn’t consider the issues about his work “catastrophic,” the report said, but in at least one case, an error included a misplaced decimal point that could have led to a felony charge instead of a misdemeanor possession charge.
Earlier this year, the Texas District and County Attorneys Association told its members that the cases Salvador handled “may all be jeopardized.” But the commission noted that in many cases, evidence still exists to be retested, particularly in larger counties. Smaller, rural counties are more likely to have destroyed evidence.
Sarah Kerrigan, chair of the forensic science department at Sam Houston State University, who led the panel’s investigation and report, said there was no evidence that Salvador deliberately falsified drug tests.
“The examiners we met were highly competent,” Kerrigan said. “I doubt this will happen again.”
||Truth in Justice