I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about the case of Ronald Taylor, who is on his way to being freed from prison after being unjustly convicted of rape 14 years ago due to an error committed by the HPD Crime Lab. I’m glad that justice is being done, however belatedly, and that since his case hinged on DNA evidence that it was possible for justice to eventually be done. May his experience help to ensure that no one else has to go through what he endured.
I’m also glad to see that there’s been some progress being made on how these cases should be handled systematically.
Taylor’s is the third conviction to crumble since scrutiny of work from the Houston crime lab began late in 2002 after news reports and an audit exposed poorly trained personnel and inaccurate work in the DNA division. Two other men were released from prison after new DNA tests discredited HPD’s analyses.
Josiah Sutton was released from prison in March 2003 when DNA tests challenged the HPD work that helped secure his conviction in a 1998 rape. Sutton received a pardon on the basis of innocence and the state has compensated him with more than $118,000 for the time he served.
George Rodriguez served more than 17 years in prison in the 1987 rape of a 14-year-old girl before new forensic evidence discredited the HPD crime lab work on his case and led prosecutors to dismiss the case against him.
Since HPD’s crime lab problems first came to light, errors have been found in several types of analyses, including those of firearms and of controlled substances, casting doubt on thousands of convictions and unsettling the local justice system.
Faulty evidence in the cases against Rodriguez and Taylor included serology, the science of typing body fluids that was a precursor to DNA testing.
Independent investigators who studied the crime lab over 26 months and issued a final report in June have called the work of the HPD serology division among the most troubling and problematic work from the crime lab.
Their scientists identified about 180 cases in which HPD serology work had “major issues” and called for a review of those cases to determine whether the forensic evidence played an essential role in securing convictions. Taylor’s case was not among those highlighted in the report.
The serologist who handled Taylor’s case worked in the lab from 1993 until 1996.
The investigative team recommended the appointment of an independent “special master” to review those cases. Local officials rejected the proposal. Instead, HPD and the district attorney’s office have begun their own reviews of those cases.
Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project, said Taylor’s case should highlight the need for a systematic review.
“The Ronald Taylor case ought to be a galvanizing example of what has to be done to correct the historical injustices that have occurred because of the Houston crime lab,” Scheck said.
Scheck, other lawyers and local elected officials have begun working on a proposal to form a panel of lawyers to review these cases. Rosenthal was receptive to the idea of such a panel, Scheck said, and the lawyers have contacted the presiding judge over Harris County’s courts, state District Judge Debbie Mantooth Stricklin, about how to proceed with the proposal.
“There has got to be an expeditious way to go through these cases and determine whether more testing is possible and appropriate,” Scheck said. “That sort of vetting requires expertise, competence and an infrastructure to do that.”
And it’s high time that we made this happen. If the panel of lawyers approach is acceptable to all, then let’s get it formed and get moving. We can’t afford to wait any longer.