Edition: U.S. / Global

New Doubt Cast on Testing in Houston Police Crime Lab

By ADAM LIPTAK and RALPH BLUMENTHAL; Maureen Balleza contributed reporting for this article.
Published: August 5, 2004

The police crime laboratory in Houston, already reeling from a scandal that has led to retesting of evidence in 360 cases, now faces a much larger crisis that could involve many thousands of cases over 25 years.

Six independent forensic scientists, in a report to be filed in a Houston state court today, said that a crime laboratory official -- because he either lacked basic knowledge of blood typing or gave false testimony -- helped convict an innocent man of rape in 1987.

The panel concluded that crime laboratory officials might have offered ''similarly false and scientifically unsound'' reports and testimony in other cases, and it called for a comprehensive audit spanning decades to re-examine the results of a broad array of rudimentary tests on blood, semen and other bodily fluids.

Elizabeth A. Johnson, a former director of the DNA laboratory at the Harris County medical examiner's office in Houston, said the task would be daunting.

''A conservative number would probably be 5,000 to 10,000 cases,'' Dr. Johnson said. ''If you add in hair, it's off the board.''

The official whose testimony was challenged, James Bolding, said in a telephone interview that he did not recall the particular case. But Mr. Bolding said that both his scientific work and his testimony were always careful and professional. When he testified in 1987, he was the supervisor of the laboratory's serology unit. He later became the head of its DNA unit.

His testimony helped convict George Rodriguez, who has served 17 years for raping a 14-year-old girl in 1987. DNA results have now cleared him, according to court-ordered testing, and the papers to be filed today will seek his release. As in many of the 146 DNA exonerations across the country, the new information also calls into question the scientific evidence used to convict Mr. Rodriguez in the first place.

A re-examination of the work by the Houston crime laboratory is already under way, but only of the DNA evidence used to convict people. That effort involves hundreds of cases and has produced a staggering workload, prosecutors in Houston say. One man has been exonerated, and significant problems have arisen in at least 40 cases.

The discovery of flawed work in the laboratory that led to the Rodriguez conviction would seem to require similar reviews of its work, legal experts said, but prosecutors would not immediately say what they will do or whether they will oppose Mr. Rodriguez's release.

Barry Scheck, one of Mr. Rodriguez's lawyers, said that Harris County was the worst place in America for a crime laboratory scandal.

''We know already that they couldn't do DNA testing properly,'' Mr. Scheck said. ''Now we have a scandal that calls into question many thousands more cases. And this jurisdiction has produced more executions than any other county in America.''

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Texas has executed 323 people, 73 for crimes in Harris County.

A state audit of the crime laboratory, completed in December 2002, has found that DNA technicians there misinterpreted data, were poorly trained and kept shoddy records. In many cases, the technicians used up all available evidence, making it impossible for defense experts to refute or verify their results. Even the laboratory's building was a mess, with a leaky roof contaminating evidence.

The DNA unit was shut down soon afterward, and it remains closed.

Police officers and prosecutors vowed to retest DNA evidence in every case where it was used to obtain a conviction. The size of that job, far smaller than the one called for by experts in the Rodriguez case, has involved many thousands of hours.

''It's massive,'' said Marie Munier, the assistant district attorney supervising the re-examinations. ''If you had asked me when it happened would it take us over two years to complete this, I would have said: 'You're crazy. No way.'''

''Maybe if they'd gotten 50 or 100 people,'' she added, ''they could have gotten it done faster.''

Ms. Munier said retesting had resulted in one exoneration, that of Josiah Sutton, who was released last year after serving more than four years for a rape he did not commit.

Though DNA is often thought of as a tool for exonerations, prosecutors in Mr. Sutton's case had used it to convict him, submitting false scientific evidence asserting that there was a solid match between Mr. Sutton's DNA and that found at the crime scene. In fact, 1 of every 8 black people, including Mr. Sutton, shared the relevant DNA profile. More refined retesting cleared him.

Ms. Munier said her office had overseen retesting in 360 DNA cases so far. ''In 18 cases, they were unable to confirm the original H.P.D. results,'' she said, referring to the Houston Police Department. ''In 21 cases, I am told by H.P.D. that additional testing is in progress because the first tests did not confirm the original results. In six cases, the retests confirmed the original inclusion or exclusion, but the H.P.D.'s statistical analysis was off.''

She said that defendants and their lawyers were being told of these results, and that they were free to file motions contesting their convictions.

That approach has critics.