Scores of criminal cases at risk after problems found in Texas lab

Cases are being reviewed after an internal investigation alleged a technician in crime lab lied, followed improper procedure or tampered with official records

By Juan A. Lozano
Associated Press

HOUSTON — Test results of evidence used in scores of criminal cases in the Houston area, including in capital murder convictions, are being reviewed after the work of a DNA lab technician has come into question, according to Harris County prosecutors.

The cases are being reviewed after an internal police investigation alleged a technician in the Houston police crime lab lied, followed improper procedure or tampered with official records. The Harris County District Attorney's Office sent letters to attorneys in 185 criminal cases, including 53 murders or capital murders, to advise that the technician in the Houston police crime lab has resigned. A Harris County grand jury declined to indict the former technician on criminal charges.

A list of the cases being reviewed that was obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday showed that of the 53 murder or capital murder cases, seven resulted in murder convictions but none of the defendants received a death sentence. One of them was a capital case that ended in a life sentence. Of the 185 cases under review, 120 are pending in the court system.

Houston police spokesman Victor Senties said the ex-technician worked for the lab from January 2012 until he resigned in March 2014. Senties said police would not release any further information about the allegations against the technician.

The Houston Chronicle first obtained the letters that were sent to defense attorneys through an open records request.

Prosecutor Jennifer Falk said her office compiled a list of all the cases the ex-technician played an integral role in the DNA testing and is now working with Houston police to retest "any of the steps (the technician) did and hopefully correct any of the errors or just make sure there were no contamination concerns in any of the cases."

Falk said she believes the issues with this ex-technician's work are not an indication of a widespread problem at the crime lab.

"Everybody would agree it needs to be done in the right way. That's why we are going back and doing the retesting," she said.

But Gerald Bourque, a defense attorney in several of the cases — including two capital murder cases — said he has a "major concern" about the internal controls within the crime lab that were supposed to catch such problems. Bourque indicated he knows what happened, but declined to discuss how the technician's bad work was caught.

"We're all concerned. This is not a good thing. This is a true mess," he said, adding he believed most of the lab's employees are "hard working people."

Bourque and Falk appeared at a court hearing earlier Thursday on one of the pending capital murder cases where evidence is being retested. Falk said she is providing Bourque with information he requested related to all the cases that are being retested. Bourque said he is confident the DA's office will not hide anything from him.

The lab has been plagued by problems for years. Forensic testing was temporarily suspended there in 2002 because of numerous management, employee and structural problems, including a roof leak that had dripped water on stored evidence for years. Also, the lab had a backlog of up to 6,600 untested rape kits that piled up until the work was outsourced last August.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press

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