The truth about forensic evidence

How can "science" be so sloppy?


By: Liliana Segura

This past February, viewers of George Bush's State of the Union address may have been surprised at his call for DNA testing of evidence in capital cases.  After a war-and-terror-themed presidential race that made no mention of the death penalty, it was a moment otherwise buried under endless references to "liberty" and "freedom." Bush said, "In America, we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit-so we are dramatically expanding the use of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful conviction."

Television audiences familiar with Bush's longstanding love affair with capital punishment might have been curious about his sudden concern over innocence. For clues, they needed only to look toward the president's home state. While Bush issued his rhetoric in Washington, the latest chapter in a major crisis was playing out in Texas-a crisis that calls into question the reliability of the same DNA testing the president was claiming to be a solution to the country's death penalty ills.

For the past two years, the Houston Police Department (HPD) has been embroiled in a scandal over its crime lab, the processing center for evidence gathered in criminal investigations in Harris County, Texas. The lab has been shown to be rife with problems, from mislabeled evidence to contaminated DNA samples. News of this first broke in November 2002, when local TV station KHOU-Channel 11 aired an investigative segment showing that the crime lab was dilapidated and alarmingly disorganized. The report questioned the reliability of DNA evidence processed on its grounds.

In response, the HPD called for a review of the lab and its DNA samples, with many expressing confidence that the problems would turn out to be merely superficial. As it turned out, the KHOU report was only the tip of the iceberg. By the spring of 2003, the lab had been discovered to be a managerial cesspool-more dangerous liability than crime-fighting tool. DNA testing was abruptly halted, including hundreds of samples slated for retesting-among them, evidence that had led to death penalty convictions.

As the scandal developed, a flurry of editorials appeared in newspapers statewide, calling for a halt to executions while cases were re-examined. This would require the Texas legislature to pass an amendment that gives Gov. Rick Perry the power to impose a moratorium.

A March 12, 2003, op-ed in the Dallas Morning News said, "Texas, which executes more people than all the states and even most countries, should pause. New evidence of a flawed system and cautions expressed recently by some of those closest to the process make a good case for a moratorium on executions." Two weeks later, the Houston Chronicle concurred. "The sheer number of inmates awaiting execution whose guilt has been freshly called into question is reason aplenty," it wrote.

Nevertheless, the executions continued. In August 2004, the HPD found 280 boxes containing evidence related to 8,000 cases, some of which dated back to the 1970s. They contained everything from bloody clothing to body parts that had been gathering dust in a storage room for decades. The boxes, it turned out, had been mislabeled. The chilling implications of this discovery lead to inevitable questions: How did this disastrous crime lab operate unchecked for so long? How many of these boxes contain exculpatory evidence? And most sickening: Will they lead to the discovery that, among Texas hundreds of executions over the past 30 years, one or more took the life of an innocent person?

One thing is clear: The Houston crime lab scandal proves that DNA technology is no match for human error. In a state already known for sleeping lawyers and racist law enforcement, this fiasco is just another example of Texas as the embodiment of everything wrong with the death penalty. It is hopelessly, irretrievably broken. And people are taking notice.

Which brings us back to the president's speech. Bush's invoking of DNA had nothing to do with concern over potentially innocent defendants. After all, he earned the nickname "Texecutioner" for a reason. Now, in addition to overseeing more than 150 executions as governor, Bush has the additional distinction of having presided over the worst crime lab in the country.

For the president, paying lip service to the need for procedural safeguards is more than a form of political damage control, it's an attempt to block the inroads being made into America's capital punishment system. Convincing people that the system can be fixed is a way to keep the death penalty alive.

The good news: Concern over the future of the death penalty has made it to the top in Washington. The bad news: The executions continue.

This is the first part of a two-part report. The second segment will run in the next issue.