Pubdate: Fri,  4 Apr 2003
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author:  Thom Marshall
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


NOW THAT WE KNOW we have put some people in prison who shouldn't be there, 
we should figure out a quick and efficient way to identify all of them and 
set them free.

For example, we know about those 13 people in prison from Tulia, who got 
sent there on the uncorroborated word of an itinerant undercover cop 
working for a drug task force. It took nearly four years to get the gears 
of our criminal justice system to go in reverse, but a few days ago a court 
ruled the undercover cop's testimony was not reliable.

Retired State District Judge Ron Chapman of Dallas actually reviewed only 
four of the Tulia cases for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. However, 
he is recommending that all 38 people who were convicted in the Tulia drug 
bust -- including the 13 still in prison -- be granted new trials. Since 
that cop's tainted testimony was pretty much all the prosecutors had, 
they've said there won't be any new trials.

Incompetence vs. corruption It is disgraceful that our criminal justice 
system is taking so long to deal with the Tulia injustice. Four years. And 
it will be several more weeks before the appeals court can act on the 
recommendation and the 13 will be released (providing the high judges do 
not overrule Chapman).

Here in our hometown, we know that Josiah Sutton, 21, should not have been 
in prison for the 4 1/2 years he spent there because the Houston Police 
crime lab botched a DNA test in his case. Sutton recently was released 
after an independent lab determined he couldn't have been the source of the 
DNA evidence.

However, his lawyer, Bob Wicoff, said Friday that Sutton's life "is still 
on hold" because the Harris County DA has not yet decided whether to accept 
the retested DNA results or have the evidence tested yet a third time.

Many thousands of convictions have been obtained through the past several 
years using evidence processed by a crime lab that is no more trustworthy 
than that undercover cop in Tulia.

David Dow, a University of Houston law professor who runs the Innocence 
Network, said that he is reopening some 100 cases handled by the network 
and involving convictions obtained through any type of evidence processed 
by the lab -- DNA, ballistics, drugs, whatever.

"A large enough volume of incompetence adds up to corruption," Dow said. 
That is such a strong statement, let's read it again:

"A large enough volume of incompetence adds up to corruption."

A bungling crime lab that put some people in prison because of mistakes is 
bad enough to contemplate. But what if we had a crime lab that for years 
has purposely skewed evidence testing to help the prosecution? In the 
nation's fourth largest city? How many miscarriages of justice might we 
ultimately be talking about?

What a disaster. And our system is not equipped to deal with it, whether it 
turns out to be an incompetence disaster or a larger corruption disaster.

Complicated questions I asked state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the 
Senate Criminal Justice Committee, how we might go about reviewing all the 
cases that need to be reviewed, and then go about springing all the people 
who should be sprung.

Does the governor appoint a committee? Is the board of pardons and paroles 
supposed to figure it out? Does the attorney general take it on? Or the 
court of appeals? Or the Legislature?

"No one's come up with an answer," Whitmire said. "It's so damned complicated."

Then he commented about how that hearing in Tulia seemed to go pretty far 
toward clearing up the crisis there.

"Why couldn't somebody ask that same judge to review the Houston cases?" 
Whitmire asked. "Just duplicate that process with the Houston lab."

Nobody knows what to do. Nobody knows who's supposed to do it.

What we do know is that we have put some people in prison who shouldn't be 

And time is passing.
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