- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

HOUSTON — A criminal forensic lab that helped send several men to prison on false evidence needs a complete review dating back a generation or more, lawyers and officials say.

The latest scandal involves a man who was convicted in 1987 of raping a 14-year-old girl based on what a review panel called “scientifically unsound” conclusions by the Houston Police Department Crime Lab, which was shut down in 2002.

“What we need here in Houston is the appointment of a special master, an independent person, to see if any mistakes … may have led to wrongful convictions,” said Barry Scheck, one of the founders of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group based at the Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University in New York that investigates cases in which innocent persons might have been falsely convicted.

Houston Mayor Bill White said Friday he hoped that police Chief Harold Hurtt would confer with Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal to determine whether such a special investigator is needed.

Mr. Rosenthal has opposed an outside investigation, but faced with new accusations of improper testing by the crime lab, he said Friday that he would drop that opposition.

“What we’re talking about here,” said Mr. Scheck, “is 25 years of bad science.”

Mr. Scheck’s New York-based group on Thursday filed a motion to vacate a 60-year sentence given to George Rodriquez, who was convicted of raping a teenage girl in 1987.

According to court documents, DNA testing was conducted on pubic hairs found on the 14-year-old victim’s clothing in the Rodriquez case, which matched a man who was one of the original suspects in the case.

Shortly after the abduction and rape in 1987, police said, two men had attacked the girl. Within days, Manual Beltran confessed to the crime and implicated a man named Isidro Yanez.

When police failed to locate Mr. Yanez, they began to investigate Rodriquez, who they had been told was a close associate of Beltran’s.

Several weeks later, the police lab matched a pubic hair to Rodriquez. At the subsequent trial, serologist James Bolding testified that Mr. Yanez had been excluded as a suspect.

New DNA tests, prompted by Rodriquez’s Houston attorney, Mark Wawro, in cooperation with the New York group, showed that it was Mr. Yanez’s hair that was found on the young victim.

As part of the documents filed last week, Mr. Scheck and his team supplied much more information about Mr. Yanez, including evidence that suggested the Houston police investigation of the case might have been compromised.

In July 1987, three months before Rodriquez went on trial, Mr. Yanez was accused of assaulting and raping his mother’s live-in maid. According to the police report, “the suspect pinned her down on the bed and started beating her with his fists on the head and face. The suspect kept yelling at her that if she didn’t give in, he was going to kill her.”

Records indicate that Mr. Yanez was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of attempted sexual assault and was sentenced to a year in the Harris County Jail.

A representative for Mr. Rosenthal said it was not clear whether the district attorney’s office would oppose Rodriquez’s efforts to be released from prison.

Six separate forensic scientists concurred that the conclusions reached by the crime lab in the Rodriquez prosecution were “scientifically unsound.”

Chief Hurtt said his department is reviewing the Rodriquez case.

In December 2002, the local crime lab was closed because of “shoddy science” and “substandard working conditions.” That forced the retesting of more than 360 cases involving DNA evidence.

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