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Trusting Prosecutors With Forensic Lab Evidence? Consider Harris County District Attorney: Notices Sent of 100s of Wrongful Convictions

Here in Dallas County, the District Attorney’s Office is getting its very own forensics evidence lab set up smack dab in the courthouse. So convenient, right?

We’ve posted on this development here (read the post) and others have voiced their concern over having the prosecutor so very-very-close to the evidence lab.

Well, here’s more to ponder when considering prosecutors and forensic crime labs. Seems the Houston Press had an expose last month that is still being investigated, where the Harris County District Attorney’s Office knew that convictions were wrong, based upon forensics evidence out of their Houston Police Department Crime Lab clearing the defendant, and only got around to notifying the convicted folk about it in the past few months.

 

Movie poster for the 1920 film “Convict 13” staring Buster Keaton.

 

Now, some of these convictions dated back YEARS. According to the Houston Press, some are 10 years old, with bad convictions in 2004.

Still, it was only in the months of July, August, and September 2014 (that’s right — within the past few months) that the convicted people got notified that there was a problem. The notices did explain that these folk had been “convicted in error,” which is pretty clear language.

What’s not so clear — at least until the Houston Press finishes going through everything — is why these prosecutors are just now letting the cat out of the bag.

Records show that the prosecutors were informed of convictions made “in error” YEARS AGO when their Crime Lab returned the results of forensic testing of evidence in these cases. The Houston Crime Lab reported that there was NOT any illegal substance in the stuff — no “controlled substance” upon which to base an allegation of a violation of the Texas Penal Code.

From the prosecutors’ view, apparently, this was a big problem for them because they’d already shoved a PLEA DEAL down the person’s throat and had washed their hands of that case and marked another win on their tally.

Wrongful Felony Convictions As Well As Misdemeanor Convictions

This happened to hundreds of people. Not one or two. Not fifty or even ninety. HUNDREDS — which means it was apparently pretty much system-wide acceptance in that District Attorney’s Office.

Another serious twist to this story: some of these were misdemeanor convictions but others were felony convictions. Much more serious in terms of jail time then, and much more serious to have on their records now.

  • So, these felony convictions with notifications of “convictions in error” have to deal with things like getting that mess off their record as well as considering other actions that might be available to them.
  • And someone needs to consider what happens to these prosecutors who were happy to file those negative lab results away rather than stop the presses and get that convicted person some timely justice.

Catch and release appears to be the popular answer to the Harris County fiasco: after the drug arrest, the person is released and not incarcerated (where there is a growing temptation to take a plea deal just to get free faster regardless of guilt or innocence) until the crime lab results are returned. Maybe that’s the answer, maybe it’s not.

Now, back to that bigger question: anyone thinking that having a forensics crime lab directly connected to a prosecutor’s office posts a big problem?


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