At the end of the week, the Chronicle‘s Roma Khanna and Steve McVicker reported that Harris County criminal district judges plan to review 180 crime-lab cases identified by Michael Bromwich as potentially troubling in his investigation of HPD’s Crime Lab:
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.
Local officials have argued about how best to address those cases since June, when an independent investigator recommended appointing a “special master” to review cases with questionable body fluid testing known as serology from the scandal-plagued Houston Police Department crime lab.
Mayor Bill White, Police Chief Harold Hurtt and top prosecutor Chuck Rosenthal dismissed the need for an outsider for the serology review, saying the cases could be handled within the existing system.
But others, including state legislators and criminal defense attorneys, pressed the need for a consolidated, independent review. Just this week, a man freed after serving 14 years for a rape he did not commit urged the City Council to take action saying, “something must be done.”
At a routine administrative meeting Wednesday, Harris County’s criminal district judges prepared to take action.
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.
As the story indicates, Mayor White and Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal had resisted Bromwich’s recommendation for the appointment of an independent special master, arguing that existing institutions could best review the cases. We’ve never thought a second (or third, or fourth) set of independent eyes could actually hurt the case review process, however — and that it quite likely could help.
In light of the week’s events surrounding the release of the unjustly incarcerated Ronald Taylor, we can’t view this move by Harris County judges as anything but welcome.
RELATED: Mix-up on DNA deals HPD lab another blow (Mike Tolson & Roma Khanna, Houston Chronicle), Freed man’s case was forged by chain of errors (Roma Khanna, Houston Chronicle), Making it right: New panel must quickly attack crime lab’s festering injustices (Houston Chronicle).