- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 5, 2006

HOUSTON — A probe of the city’s police crime lab by an independent criminologist has found a high rate of faulty DNA test results and blood analyses that would not pass usual standards, but only two men have been released from prison as a result of the substandard work.

Prosecutors argue that lab evidence was not the key to many convictions, so few deserve to be overturned.

In 2002, Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal and top police officials announced that 400 cases involving DNA testing performed at the lab would be re-examined. They made the announcement after a series of television reports questioned the lab’s operations.

Some lab officials subsequently were disciplined or fired.

Two grand juries that investigated the lab’s operations found no proof of criminal negligence, but the trickle of complaints erupted into a major scandal. City leaders closed the lab and hired an outside specialist to evaluate several years’ worth of criminal prosecutions.

A report released in January by Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general, found problems with 40 percent of DNA cases and 22.5 percent of blood-work cases handled by the laboratory between 1987 and 2002.

The city then allowed Mr. Bromwich to examine convictions dating back to 1980 in which work performed by the crime lab was a key factor.

One of two convictions overturned was that of Josiah Sutton, who had served more than four years on a rape charge when a retest found that DNA evidence used to convict him was false. He was released in 2003.

George Rodriguez served 17 years before being released in 2004. He also was cleared by DNA retesting.

Mr. Rosenthal, who has sent more men to death row than any other Texas district attorney, vowed to make sure those convicted wrongfully are either tried again or released.

“We have that obligation,” he said.

The lab investigation has cost more than $4 million, and some lawmakers are ready to become more involved.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a member of the Criminal Justice Committee and board member of the New York-based Innocence Project, introduced a bill in the last session that would have resulted in the formation of a state Innocence Commission, but the bill was shelved.

Mr. Ellis said he plans to reintroduce the bill this session.

“There needs to be some mechanism to giving those individuals the proper legal representation they deserve,” the Houston legislator said.

Some proponents of the legislation fear it will be overshadowed by pressure to find a new method to pay for the state’s public school system.

Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has created a Criminal Justice Advisory Council that will recommend changes in legal procedures to keep pace with advances in forensic science.

Almost unspoken but pervasive is a fear that a case will be uncovered in which a suspect was put to death wrongfully.

“I am bracing for it,” City Council member Adrian Garcia has said.

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