Bungles in Texas crime lab stir doubt over DNA

Botched tests cast inmates' guilt into question - an error that may be an anomaly, or an indicator of a wider problem.

As head of the trial bureau in the Harris County Attorney's Office, Marie Munier is in the middle of a legal meltdown. Her only companions: more than two dozen boxes packed with police reports.

Following revelations earlier this year of shoddy scientific practices at the Houston Police Department crime laboratory, she's sorting through every police report recorded since 1992 in search of inaccuracies in DNA testing. The stacks of boxes in Ms. Munier's cramped office are just one small sign of the fallout from the scandal, which forced the police lab to shut down in January. Since then, it's become clear that hundreds of cases may have been tainted over the last decade of DNA testing.

In a state that sends more prisoners to death row than any other, it's considered a catastrophe. State lawmakers are pushing for regulations, defense attorneys are demanding retrials, and judges are calling for a grand-jury investigation into possible criminal misconduct.

Those who work with DNA still say the science is the best there is, and insist the recent errors are anomalies. But others say it's the tip of the iceberg - and suggest that without required certification and proper funding, crime labs across the country are in danger of similar problems.

"My sense is that this is a much more widespread problem than has been admitted," says Lawrence Goldman, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "There are incredible shortcuts that technicians have taken, sometimes out of laziness, sometimes out of zeal, and sometimes out of pure incompetence."

So far, Munier and her group have identified 95 additional cases to be retested, including 17 death-penalty cases. Just this week, the Fort Worth Police Department announced that nearly 100 DNA cases handled by its crime lab over the past three years would be reviewed because a forensic scientist did not follow protocol. And an FBI lab technician recently resigned while under investigation for failing to follow proper procedure when analyzing DNA in at least 103 cases over the past few years.

Taken together, the breaches are shaking the confidence of a public that, in the past decade, has come to view DNA evidence as foolproof.

In Houston, for example, Josiah Sutton was recently released from prison after serving four years of a 25-year sentence: On retest, the same DNA evidence used to convict him of rape showed clearly that he was not guilty.

"We were all told years ago that DNA was infallible and we wouldn't have innocent people being convicted. Well, we forgot about human error and misconduct," says Rep. Kevin Bailey, who chairs a legislative committee looking into the Houston crime lab. He has introduced a bill that mandates accreditation for labs - something only New York and Oklahoma currently require.

But those who perform DNA testing defend it as the best, most foolproof and bias-free evidence there is - human error notwithstanding.

"DNA testing is the most reliable forensic tool we've ever had, if it's performed properly and interpreted properly," says Elizabeth Johnson, former head of the DNA lab at the medical examiner's office in Harris County. "The Houston police department had a problem doing both of those things."

Dr. Johnson is now working for a private lab in California after trying unsuccessfully to alert others to the Houston department's mistakes. While she agrees that some sort of legislation is necessary in Texas, she says it's not a panacea. Many of the labs she currently works with are accredited - with "very mediocre work coming out of them."

The accreditation process remains voluntary in most states. Of the 400 to 500 labs doing forensic work nationwide, 240 are currently accredited and another 25 are seeking accreditation, says Ralph Keaton, executive director of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board in Garner, N.C.

The accreditation process takes time, effort, and plenty of money. Just preparing for it is often a three-year process, says Mr. Keaton - a daunting time frame for labs like Houston's, which was overworked, underfunded, and short-staffed.

While Keaton hasn't seen an increase in the number of unaccredited labs seeking certification in the wake of Houston's problems - simply because the front-end work is so extensive - he calls this "the type of thing that awakens quite a few labs to apply."

Many crime labs have thousands of untested samples sitting in storage. The mantra of the criminal-justice system is, overwhelmingly: We need more money.

The federal government is aware of the problem. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced last month plans to commit $1 billion to the DNA issue over the next five years. While some of that money will go toward testing convicts who claim to be innocent, the bulk of it will be used to reduce the backlog in crime labs across the country and to expand the national DNA database.

All of Houston's cases have been pulled from that database, and Mayor Lee Brown is calling for a moratorium on executions in Houston until the problems are sorted out.

That can't come soon enough for Les Ribnik, a criminal-defense attorney here who's been told that three of his death-penalty cases are in line for retesting. He's awaiting word on five more with the same potential.

"All police departments should be taking a hint. Running a quality operation takes money and continued education and updating equipment," says Mr. Ribnik. "But most of all, it should wake people up to the fact that DNA analysis is still a human activity, subject to failures and insufficiencies and mishaps and arrogance."

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