Proof Negative

Last winter the Houston Police Department's DNA crime lab came under fire for a litany of forensics flaws. Here's what happened—and how it could affect criminal cases across the state.

How did the HPD’s crime lab get into this mess?
In November 2002 TV station KHOU began airing a series of reports in which independent DNA experts reviewing the crime lab’s work found that members of the lab’s staff had made egregious scientific errors. In January a team of auditors from outside the department announced that it had also found that the lab had failed to meet minimal professional standards.

Which means what, exactly?
For starters, a leak in the lab’s roof had routinely discharged water—which can break down DNA—onto evidence tables. (As a result of Tropical Storm Allison, in 2001, water leaked directly onto biological materials.) In addition, DNA sources were not being properly stored, cataloged, or tested, and evidence samples were occasionally used up in the initial testing, making retesting impossible. Most disturbing, in a few cases members of the lab’s staff were found to have presented DNA testimony to juries that was wrong, in some instances contradicting their own findings.

So are innocent people in prison?
Possibly. In 1999 Josiah Sutton, of Houston, was convicted of rape and sentenced to 25 years, largely on the basis of DNA evidence processed at the Houston crime lab. Independent retesting of the evidence seems to have exonerated Sutton, now 21, and on March 12 he was freed on bail.

Yikes. What about other cases?
The HPD has contracted with Identigene, a DNA analysis company, to retest its DNA evidence. At the same time, the Harris County district attorney’s office has begun reviewing the roughly 1,300 police investigations—including those of seventeen death row inmates—that have been found to involve DNA evidence processed at the Houston lab.”Even if there were a dozen eyewitnesses and six confessions,” said assistant DA Marie Munier,”if DNA helped us to convict somebody, we’re going to recommend retesting.” In March Mayor Lee Brown asked Governor Rick Perry for a moratorium on the death penalty cases until retesting is completed.

Is anyone taking responsibility?
Not exactly. In a February 10 letter to his superiors, lab chief Donald Krueger blamed his unit’s problems on a lack of funds and inadequate staffing, writing that”we are barely able to

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