Chron editorialists try to blame DA, judges for crime lab fiasco

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KPRC-2 general manager Steve Wasserman has belatedly weighed in on the HPD crime lab controversy:

Appalling is the only word to describe the magnitude of the mismanagement under which the Houston Police Department crime lab operated, as described in the third report of the independent investigator.

Some results of the ineptitude are already known: evidence contaminated with rain water from a leaky roof, more than 19,000 rape kits never analyzed or sent to the federal DNA profiling database.

This report concentrates on the history and lack of oversight that caused this.

HPD’s underfunding and personnel classifications caused pay to be so low that employees — even senior managers — moonlighted.

Turf wars and feuds put under qualified people in critical jobs. A detached HPD bureaucracy held no one accountable for incompetence and outright fraud.

LOCAL 2 wonders if the powers that be have the will to institute the changes in the police culture needed to elevate the crime lab to appropriate level.

As we’ve previously noted, HPD and city leaders deserve plenty of blame for the crime lab.

The Chronicle editorial board, on the other hand, seems to want to shift blame for the lab’s disgraceful practices — many of which occurred when Lee P. Brown, the candidate the newspaper endorsed repeatedly for mayor, was in a position to make a difference (or not) — to one of its favorite “bad guys,” Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal.

Here’s a snippet from a Sunday editorial:

This shocking state of affairs could not have endured for at least 15 years without the willful ignorance, negligence and wrongdoing of officials throughout Harris County’s justice system. Mayors and police chiefs budgeted too little for the crime lab; Police Department supervisors ignored analytical errors and tolerated cheating. Crime lab employees reached false conclusions, misinterpreted forensic evidence and misled juries about their knowledge and skills.

In the Harris County district attorney’s office, some prosecutors knew about cheating on crime lab tests but did not inform their colleagues or the defense bar, as required by law. When criminal violations by lab personnel were alleged, prosecutors declined to seek indictments, deciding instead to leave bad enough alone.

The Chronicle‘s ongoing effort to insinuate that Chuck Rosenthal (whose inexperienced and underwhelming opponent the Chronicle editorial board endorsed in the last election) played a part in the HPD crime lab fiasco is not subtle. In the interest of equal time, I contacted Rosenthal and asked for his reaction to those charges. He told me:

On three tests we knew that mistakes had been made because they were caught by lab supervisors. In each case the defense attorneys were notified, changes were made to the indictments and the defendants pleaded guilty.

What the Chronicle did was to post an erroneous set of facts (saying that results were obtained without testing the drugs) to several defense attorneys.

I learned from talking to HPD lab supervisor Irma Rios, in 1998 Chemist Patel had several pills to test. He tested the first one and erred in the identification of the pill. He assumed, I suppose, that other pills were the same without testing.

News consumers can make up their own minds as to what they think of Rosenthal’s comments, but it’s a shame they have to turn to blogs rather than the city’s only newspaper just to learn Rosenthal’s response, a basic part of the story.

The Chronicle followed on Monday with a related editorial that makes additional reckless suggestions about the integrity of judges and prosecutors within the Harris County justice system:

Even in today’s post-Soviet Russia, judges and prosecutors tend to do what the Kremlin wants them to do. Here, judges are independent of the executive branch, and every resident is guaranteed a trial by jury. However, the criminal justice system in Harris County in no way can be considered a level playing field.

The prosecution has access to the investigative resources of cooperative police departments eager for convictions. It has its own investigators. The district attorney can devote as many experienced prosecutors and as much time to a case as he deems necessary.

In almost all criminal cases, the defendant has no money for even one lawyer. The court appoints one for him. Appointed defense lawyers might be inexperienced or just not good at what they do. They might be paid so little that they can afford to spend only a few hours on the case. Sometimes appointed counsel will ask the court for money to hire an investigator or conduct independent analysis of the physical evidence; frequently they won’t.


Some judges hire contract lawyers to represent indigent defendants. This assures competence, but in the end the defense lawyers are still working for and dependent for their pay upon the judge, who might put quick resolution of cases above taking every measure to see that justice is done.

Most cases are resolved by plea bargain. The prosecution offers defendants a shorter sentence or lesser charge in exchange for a guilty plea. This results in a system in which an innocent person asserting his innocence, with minimal assistance from counsel, stands a good chance of spending more time in prison than a guilty person admitting guilt.

Many jurisdictions in the United States level the playing field by establishing a public defender’s office with staff and resources similar to those of the prosecution. Ideally, Harris County should have such an office, which could hire defense lawyers for the poor and take responsibility for their competence and success in trial.

Yes, the editorialists under the supervision of a man who once asserted that “most blogs lack the elegance, wit and insight” of “editorial pages in their ideal state” have actually intimated that the Harris County justice system is not unlike Russia’s. And that its judges lack integrity.

Elegant? Witty? Insightful? Not especially.

Surely the Chronicle editorialists can participate in a debate of the weaknesses (and strengths) of the Harris County justice system without transparently smearing a district attorney whose defeat they have urged largely because of his views on the death penalty, and without impugning the integrity of the judges within the system. Furthermore, they might provide some evidence that many people are wrongly convicted or wrongly accept a guilty plea when they are innocent. Assertions and smears are not evidence.

On the substantive matter of establishing a public defender’s office with resources comparable to the district attorney’s office — that might be good public policy, or it might not. The Harris County district attorney’s office is hardly unusual in that it regularly loses good prosecutors to private practice, where the pay is much better. If the DA’s office cannot compete with private practice in terms of salary, why does the Chronicle think a public defender’s office could be any more successful at retaining competent counsel?

Perhaps when the editorial idealists are done smearing people they don’t like, they could address that question.

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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX