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Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Do Not Trust Prosecutor’s Crime Lab Forensic Evidence, When Will Public Become Aware that Crime Lab Results Aren’t Like TV Forensics?

Forensic evidence seems so darn scientific and reliable when you watch TV. Unfortunately, things are NOT the same in the real world as they are on television shows and we’ve been monitoring how bad Texas Crime Labs can be in processing evidence to be used in criminal trials for a long while now. (See, for example, our January 2010 post, “Can We Trust Texas Crime Labs? No.”)

For Texas criminal defense lawyers, eyebrows almost automatically raise when prosecutors point to any test results that have been done in any Texas crime lab because Texas forensic evidence coming out of these Texas forensic evidence crime laboratories are so infamous for being unreliable, flawed, and just plain wrong.

Why would Texas criminal defense attorneys scoff at the reliability of Texas crime lab forensic evidence these days? Consider for yourself these four examples:

1. Back in 2010, the Houston Police Department fingerprint comparison unit was under investigation for “shoddy” work and a 600+ case backlog.)

2. The “arson” evidence that was refuted as faulty in the trial of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was convicted anyway and later executed; after his death, that flawed forensic evidence was questioned and analyzed, putting the Texas Forensic Science Commission under real scrutiny by the news media and others.

3. There are many more examples from different parts of the state, but the biggest and easiest example that Texas criminal defense lawyers can use to justify their distrust of Texas crime lab results is the work of one single lab technician, a crime lab analyst named Jonathan Salvador who worked for the Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab.

In an official report from the Texas Forensic Science Commission with contributions from the Texas Rangers and the Office of the Inspector General, crime lab analyst Jonathan Salvador’s forensic lab results, which were used as evidence in lots and lots of criminal trials, were deemed unreliable and flawed, which means that the official state agency report found that Salvador’s failures as a crime lab technician puts literally 1000s of convictions into question.

Texas Court of Appeals Dealing with Jonathan Salvador – Again

On October 23, 2013, oral arguments are set to be heard by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in the case of Ex Parte Leonard Coty, where the highest criminal court in the state is going to look again at the work of Mr. Salvador.

This will not be the first time that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has addressed the horrible situation that Jonathan Salvador has placed the Texas criminal justice system.

Several convictions have been reversed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals because of Salvador’s forensic crime lab results being used in prosecutions. In March 2013, in the case of Ex Parte Junius Sereal (read the opinion here), the CCA wrote in its opinion:

The DPS report shows that the lab technician who was solely responsible for testing the evidence in this case is the scientist found to have committed misconduct. While there is evidence remaining that is available to retest in this case, that evidence was in the custody of the lab technician in question. This Court believes his actions are not reliable therefore custody was compromised, resulting in a due process violation. Applicant is therefore entitled to relief.

In next week’s oral argument in Ex parte Leonard Coty, the Harris County District Attorney is apparently hopeful that the conviction can withstand a Salvador Challenge because of a plethora of other evidence used by the District Attorney’s office to convict Mr. Cody.  The prosecution hopes other evidence will be enough to sway the CCA to uphold the conviction of Mr. Cody even though it is not contested that forensic evidence coming from the crime lab work of Jonathan Salvador was part of the state’s case.

Mr. Coty has been sentenced to 10 years behind bars on a felony cocaine possession. We’ll see what happens, but if the CCA track record remains solid, the Salvador Challenge is a strong argument for Mr. Cody’s conviction to be reversed.  (One quick question to ponder:  how do we know how much that conviction was founded upon the lab results?)

One last thing. Texas criminal defense attorneys are not the only lawyers in this country who sneer at suggestions that forensic evidence is trustworthy or reliable. Boston criminal defense lawyers can point to their own version of the Salvador fiasco — which is arguably even more scary that the Jonathan Salvador matter.

4.  In Massachusetts, a crime lab chemist named Annie Dookhan was indicted earlier this year on 8 counts of tampering with evidence and over a dozen counts of obstruction of justice charges after she allegedly not only did bad work, but provide faulty lab results intentionally. Massachusetts Governor Devil Patrick had a special counsel look into the Dookhan matter, and the special counsel found that Dookhan had possibly provided flawed or faked lab results in approximately 40,000 drug cases during a 9 year time period.

Read the Massachusetts Special Counsel Report on Crime Lab Chemist Annie Dookhan’s Bad Acts here.

This one chemist has caused such a travesty of justice in Massachusetts’ courts that the Massachusetts Bar Association has a website with all sorts of information for defense lawyers, entitled “Drug Lab Crisis Resource Center” and providing links to things like “Defense counsel form to access a state-created database of information to identify individuals whose cases potentially may have been impacted.”

Perhaps the real question is not why Texas criminal defense lawyers don’t trust forensic evidence coming out of crime labs,  but when is the American Public going to realize that crime laboratories aren’t manned by characters like Horatio Caine (of CSI:Miami fame) and that lab results are not inherently reliable and worthy of their unquestioned trust?


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