June 14, 2007
The final HPD lab report

The final report on the problems with the HPD Crime Lab and what needs to be done about it has been released.

Independent investigator Michael Bromwich outlined a series of steps he said officials should take to determine what role blood-typing and DNA evidence played in securing convictions against as many as 600 defendants -- including 14 already executed -- whose cases were processed at the Houston Police Department's crime lab between 1980 and 2002.

Police Chief Harold Hurtt, Mayor Bill White and Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal agreed that hundreds of cases will require further scrutiny and possibly new testing, but they rejected Bromwich's suggestion that a "special master" be appointed to oversee the process.

"We are committed to having a crime lab that the public and the criminal justice system can have confidence in," Hurtt said. "But we feel very strongly that ... we can accomplish what needs to be done without a special master."

Bromwich's recommendations were made in the final report on his sweeping $5.3 million investigation of the lab, where bad management, undertrained staff and inaccurate work -- first exposed 4 1/2 years ago -- has cast doubt on thousands of convictions and unsettled the criminal justice system in Houston and beyond.


Police and prosecutors already have begun their review, Hurtt said, adding that, in the absence of a "special master," the committee of community representatives that oversaw Bromwich's investigation, known as the stakeholder committee, will check on their progress.

The committee's presence, coupled with assistance from nonprofits such as the Innocence Project to represent defendants' interests, eliminates the need for an independent supervisor of the serology review, Hurtt said. Bromwich said the chief's plan could be an acceptable solution.

Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project, said his group will help but that a special master would be more effective.

"There is no other way to get to the heart of it," he said. "Obviously (we) will provide help, but it's just too hard."

Each questionable serology case will get the scrutiny needed, Rosenthal said.

"We are going to start notifying defendants through the courts that there's a possibility that something was done incorrectly in their cases," he said, "and we'll let the courts resolve that."

While the stakeholder committee could work, as Bromwich says, I agree with Scheck: It will be more effective with a special master. The simple fact is that however well motivated HPD and the District Attorney's office may be now, there needs to be someone in charge whose interests are independent of theirs. The Chron editorial puts it well:

Local officials understandably want to put the crime lab scandal behind them now that all the lab's divisions have been certified as satisfactory and are processing evidence. However, hundreds of convicts remain in prison, some more than a decade after trials in which evidence presented might have been erroneously tested. Many no longer are represented by lawyers and will need more assistance than a small advocacy group such as the Innocence Project, with limited resources, can swiftly provide.

Hurtt says the judicial system, including police, prosecutors, judge and jury, can bring justice to the inmates who might have been wrongly convicted. That would leave the matter of representing prisoner interests to the police department that made the case against them, the district attorney's office that prosecuted them or a small private group. That model does not guarantee impartial justice.

Bromwich, a former U.S. Justice Department inspector general, won national attention when he investigated problems at the FBI crime lab. At a news conference after the release of his report on Houston's lab, Bromwich agreed that adequate involvement by the stakeholder group could be a substitute for a special master in finishing up the crime lab investigation.

That will put a heavy responsibility on the volunteer, unpaid members to make sure the remaining cases are thoroughly investigated and not swept under the rug in the interest of saving money or jurisdictional expedience.

It's not that it's impossible for this to work without there being an outsider in charge, as the example of Dallas DA Craig Watkins shows. Of course, Watkins is basically an outsider, just one who has since gotten himself officially embedded. He has a mandate for what he's doing that neither Rosenthal nor Hurtt have. Let's get a special master and get this done. It really is the best way.

Grits has more and more on this. The final report itself is here (PDF).

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 14, 2007 to Crime and Punishment