October 12, 2007
Panel to review HPD crime lab cases

This looks like progress to me.

Days after the release of a man wrongfully convicted on faulty forensics, Harris County criminal district judges are poised to appoint a panel to review 180 cases with problematic Houston crime lab evidence, ending a dispute about how to scrutinize those cases.


They plan to assign three defense attorneys to determine the importance of crime lab evidence to the 180 convictions and act accordingly. Those three likely will report to retired Judge Mary Bacon. Bacon will conduct teleconferences beginning Oct. 22 with 160 of the defendants in those cases, inform them of the issues with their cases and determine whether the defendants want their cases reviewed.

State District Judge Olen Underwood, the presiding judge over the judicial region that includes Harris County, must approve the project. It will be paid for with county funds.

State District Judge Mike Anderson said the judges felt the responsibility had fallen to them to develop a plan for reviewing the cases.

"Everyone is in agreement that we need to get the right thing done, do it as quickly as possible, and have competent people do it," Anderson said.


The judges' action comes after months of debate over how best to review the serology cases identified as part of a 26-month crime lab probe. Investigators found the serology division was among the most troubled in the lab, turning out unreliable evidence at an alarming rate.

The chief investigator, former U.S. Justice Department official Michael Bromwich, called for a "special master" to review 180 of the most problematic cases from the serology division. Bromwich Thursday said he was pleased with the judges' progress.

"We have always thought it crucial that the cases be reviewed through a process that combines expertise with independence," Bromwich said.

Opponents of the "special master" Thursday said they had no problem with the plan.

"I don't think I ought to have any hand in picking my opponent or in picking my forum," Rosenthal said. "Whatever they want to do is fine by me."

White echoed those sentiments: "I am glad to see the judges taking the leadership on this. That is what should occur in the criminal justice system."

The plan to appoint a review panel stands in contrast to the method used to scrutinize more than 400 cases with potentially problematic DNA evidence. For those cases, local judges appointed various attorneys and those attorneys reported to the judge in whichever court heard each case.

That decentralized plan led to little action on many cases, the Houston Chronicle reported in September. In fact, nearly two-thirds of defendants convicted with faulty DNA evidence received little legal help, according to a review of those cases.

Patrick McCann, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said he hopes this will work better.

"This would provide a single point of accountability," he said, "which is essential to making sure that people in need get representation."

My reason for supporting the appointment of a special master was that I believe it needs to be somebody's responsibility to see these cases through to the end. Someone needs to own this; it can't be a secondary task. It also cannot be the responsibility of an entity who had a role to play in causing the problem in the first place. It's not clear yet that this panel will be a suitable substitute, but I do think it has a decent chance to be one. It's at least a step in the right direction. Stace disagrees. We'll see how it goes.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 12, 2007 to Crime and Punishment