Pubdate: Fri, 21 Mar 2003
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Thom Marshall
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


Regardless of what other investigations might be requested, announced or 
begun, we still need a Harris County grand jury to examine the Houston 
Police Department crime lab scandal.

An organization of Houston churches scheduled a news conference for today 
to join the growing chorus calling for a lab probe to be done by people and 
powers outside the control or influence of Houston police and the Harris 
County district attorney.

Ministers and leaders of The Metropolitan Organization, an interfaith 
coalition of about 40 congregations and schools with memberships totaling 
an estimated 50,000 people, plan to ask Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott 
and Gov. Rick Perry to take action, said one of the group's officials.

While it may seem logical to ask the AG and governor to get involved, it 
will be surprising if either actually does, in any meaningful way.

No Moratorium on Executions

Several organizations, publications and officials already have requested 
Perry to declare a moratorium on executions, but he refuses. He says it 
will be enough to review individual cases if questions arise.

I called the AG's office recently to ask about the status of the 
investigation into the Tulia drug sting situation. You may recall that is a 
major scandal regarding numerous arrests and convictions based on the word 
of a lone itinerant undercover officer working for a narcotics task force.

When John Cornyn was AG, he stayed clear of the Tulia mess until it looked 
like it might become an issue in his campaign for U.S. Senate. Then he 
announced he was starting an investigation.

That was many months ago, but when I called to see whether the new AG about 
had the Tulia investigation all wrapped up, his PR woman took several hours 
to get back with a statement that the AG's office would not comment about 
the Tulia mess because of upcoming hearings in the appeals process of some 
of the cases. (Those hearings were under way this week in Tulia.) That PR 
woman would not even confirm that the AG's office still was investigating 
the Tulia sting scandal.

Our Mayor Brown, who must bear some responsibility for the HPD lab mess, 
has invited the U.S. Justice Department to come investigate it.

But let's look again at the Tulia scandal. The Justice Department started 
investigating Tulia long before the Texas AG's office, and nothing has come 
of it. Several months ago, one Justice Department official said the 
investigation had been dropped, but then another one said no it hadn't.

Too Hot for Political Hands

What it is is a political hot potato. If an investigation shows people were 
wrongfully convicted by a badly run narcotics task force operation, it 
would raise questions about other such operations and reflect poorly upon 
the entire Texas justice system. Ergo, it would reflect poorly upon certain 
state officials (as well as certain previous state officials who went on to 
get elected to prestigious national offices) who did not take steps to fix 

Houston could well be a similar hot potato. If sloppy handling of crucial 
evidence here led to wrongful convictions, where else might the same thing 
have occurred? And who might have to share in the responsibility for 
allowing such a mess to grow to such proportions?

University of Houston law professor David Dow and Barry Scheck and Peter 
Neufeld of the New York-based Innocence Project have called for "an 
independent audit oversight committee" to be established to examine "all 
cases on which the HPD crime lab worked." They suggest the committee 
membership include a retired judge, a retired prosecutor, a law professor 
and a scientist.

This makes a lot of sense. But while this committee is investigating lab 
evidence case by case, a Harris County grand jury should be checking the 
lab for potential criminal acts, such as falsification of government 
records and perjured testimony, for a couple of examples.

Actually, since they are pretty secretive about their work, members of one 
of our grand juries already may have begun a crime lab probe and we just 
haven't heard about it yet.
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