- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

DALLAS — A lengthy investigation into the Houston Police Department’s DNA laboratory has concluded that the operation has been “near a total breakdown” in recent years and still doesn’t come close to being acceptable.

Meanwhile, the Harris County district attorney, several defense attorneys and outside investigators are re-examining hundreds of convictions — some of them death-penalty cases — to discover how many innocent people have been affected.

Some have called for a federal investigation.

Last week, a team of forensic evidence specialists headed by lawyer Michael R. Bromwich returned a scathing 82-page report to Houston officials. Hired by the city of Houston, the Bromwich team had been examining forensic-driven cases handled by the suspect laboratory between 1987 and 2002.

The investigators reported a “disturbing and pervasive pattern” wherein lab analysts did not report evidence that would have benefited suspects and even falsified evidence.

A review of 67 cases involving sample DNA resulted in “major issues” with 40 percent of the original Houston crime-lab analyses. Three of these involved death-row prosecutions.

Police Chief Harold Hurtt said three lab analysts criticized specifically in the Bromwich report had been relieved of duty pending further investigation.

He said he thought the outside study was important and the Bromwich group would expand its investigation to include blood analysis work performed by the police lab as far back as 1980.

District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal vowed to help find evidence from his department to aid that expanded probe. He had diverted funds from his office to the lab to buy new computers.

The most critical attention generally has been in the DNA division. That office was closed abruptly in late 2002, forcing the police department and district attorney’s office to review more than 400 convictions.

A new chief of the DNA division has been named. Vanessa Nelson said she planned to train 15 new DNA analysts and gain accreditation for her division early this year.

Two men have been released from Texas prisons after proof emerged that the crime lab testimony and conclusions were false. A few others appear close to release.

Among the “problematic” convictions spotlighted by the Bromwich team are three involving Texas convicts on death row.

In those cases — involving Franklin Dewayne Alix, Juan Carlos Alvarez and Gilmar Alex Guevara — investigators say Houston lab analysts failed to report exculpatory findings and in the Alix case falsely testified as to his guilt when they knew further testing had excluded the suspect.

The Bromwich report “shows a bias within the lab to incarcerate innocent people,” said Stan Schneider, attorney for Charles Hodge, a man convicted of a 1987 sexual assault based on Houston lab analyses criticized by the Bromwich team.

“It appears there are innocent people in prison,” Mr. Schneider said. “And it appears law enforcement has played the ostrich — that everyone has just ignored the problem.”

U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, told the Houston Chronicle Saturday that Mr. Schneider had contacted him to try to obtain federal intervention.

Mr. Poe, a former prosecutor and criminal court judge in Houston, said he had asked U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales for assistance.

“My concern is the more cases that are investigated, it just turns over other cases,” Mr. Poe said.

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