Crime lab crackdown urged in Texas

March 26, 2003 at 4:15 PM
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AUSTIN, Texas, March 26 (UPI) -- A Texas state senator Wednesday called for regulation of crime labs to ensure there are no more mistakes in the processing of DNA evidence like those at the Houston police crime lab.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, is the author of legislation that would raise the level of accuracy in Texas crime labs.

"This is a step towards restoring public confidence in our criminal justice systems," he said. "This legislation protects the innocent and helps to put the bad guys behind bars. Every time we lock up an innocent person, a criminal is allowed to walk the streets."

A senate committee has recommended passage of Ellis' bill to create an oversight panel to monitor crime labs, accredit the labs and conduct audits of the work. There currently is no regulation of the labs.

Josiah Sutton was released from prison March 12 after new tests found he could not have committed the 1998 rape that the Houston police lab said he did. Murder convictions based on the lab work are also under review.

Support for the legislation is rising in the wake of the revelations at Houston crime laboratory.

"They were making fundamental mistake, after mistake after mistake," Barry Scheck, a national advocate for DNA testing and a member of New York's crime lab oversight board told a committee Tuesday in Austin.

"Believe me, we would have shut down the Houston (DNA) lab. We would have shut down the ballistics lab because the problems would have been evident, and we could have done it."

Legislators have also suggested that the investigations of the Houston lab include not only its evaluation of DNA evidence but also ballistics analysis. An outside audit first uncovered the sloppy DNA work.

The lab was closed in December and the district attorney's office has begun a review of hundreds of convictions, including several death row cases.

State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, has pointed to two death row cases in which ballistic evidences was mishandled.

"The Houston police lab was something akin to the Keystone Cops, except it is much more serious," he said. "Harris County has the greatest number of people going to death row. Isn't it ironic that it is the place where they can't get it right?"

Dutton is also calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in Texas where 300 convicted killers have been executed since the state restored the death penalty in 1982.

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