Blumenthal, Ralph. "In Texas, Oversight for Crime Labs Is Urged," New York Times, 5 January

 

Blumenthal, Ralph. "In Texas, Oversight for Crime Labs Is Urged," New York Times, 5 January
2005, p. __

HOUSTON, Jan. 4 - Facing two recently freed prisoners who each spent 17 years behind bars
because of false scientific evidence, Texas senators on Tuesday pointed fingers of blame and
urged oversight that could position the state at the forefront of national efforts to prevent
wrongful convictions.

With the Houston Police Department still working its way through 280 boxes of misplaced
evidence from 8,000 cases dating from the 1970's and discovered last August, members of the
Senate Committee on Criminal Justice sparred with the police chief and district attorney over
issues that included the advisability of a moratorium on executions, the pace of reform and the
openness of laboratory operations.

News accounts in November 2002 first exposed the Houston crime laboratory's shoddy
procedures and sloppy conditions, among a wave of similar scandals at laboratories in Virginia,
Montana, Ohio and even the F.B.I. The Houston laboratory was shut down for a time and its
DNA work given to an outside contractor. Several top staff members were fired or resigned, but
grand juries voted no indictments.

"I've been in washaterias cleaner than the crime lab," Senator Thomas D. Williams, Republican
of The Woodlands, north of Houston, said at a hearing at Houston Community
College. "It's a spaghetti bowl."

Another critic, the panel's longtime chairman, Senator John Whitmire, Democrat of Houston and
the chamber's longest-serving member, asked Chief Harold L. Hurtt why it
would take until at least March or April to select a project manager to begin reviewing the
laboratory's actions, going back to 1978.

"Am I missing your sense of urgency?" Mr. Whitmire asked. He also complained that the police
laboratory itself was retesting evidence and that no outside monitor has been reviewing the work.
"Who's going to grade your paper?" he asked.

Chief Hurtt, who inherited the scandal when he arrived from Phoenix in March and has been
generally praised for his leadership under difficult conditions, said, "We're trying the best we
can, partnering with the D.A." He estimated that 62 percent of the boxes had been opened and
cataloged but said that progress was slow because evidence from different cases had been mixed
together.

Senator Kyle Janek, Republican of Houston, could not resist. "I've got some of those drawers in
my house," Mr. Janek said.

Chief Hurtt assured the lawmakers that "no evidence to date has been found relating to any active
investigation" but was less willing than the Harris County district attorney, Charles A. Rosenthal
Jr., to predict that none would be found.

Mr. Hurtt also said, after some pressing by the senators, that he favored a moratorium on
executions, "on a case-by-case basis," until all the evidence had been cataloged.

Mr. Rosenthal said: "I don't think we should have a moratorium. But you have to be very
judicious."

Mr. Whitmire said that when the Legislature convened next week he would consider creating a
state agency to independently investigate charges of misconduct at laboratories. Under the Justice
for All Act signed in October, no state can receive federal forensic science grants without such an
agency. If it acts this year, Texas would be one of the first, officials said.

Watching from the audience and then the witness table were two men who, their lawyer, Barry
Scheck said, "represent the human face of forensic error and misconduct."

One, Brandon Moon, was released from prison two weeks ago after serving nearly 17 years on a
rape conviction that was overturned as based on a faulty DNA test.

The other, George Rodriguez, was freed in October after also spending 17 years in prison on a
rape conviction also based on false DNA evidence. In Mr. Rodriguez's case, Mr. Rosenthal said
he was considering whether to refile charges.

Mr. Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which focuses on wrongful convictions, said
that a third client, Ernest R. Willis, released from death row after a tainted arson conviction was
thrown out, was "afraid to come into the state."

Mr. Moon, who said his ordeal had cost him an Air Force flying career, told the senators that he
had felt powerless in prison. "I had no method of enforcing procedures," he said. "I could file all
the motions I wanted, but I couldn't get heard."

Mr. Rodriguez did not want to say anything at first. Then he said, "I just hope the lab gets better."