Pubdate: Fri, 25 Apr 2003
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Thom Marshall
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


USING THE ONLY JUSTICE system we've got, we can expect to spend many years 
trying to undo the damage done by our Houston Police Department crime lab.

Cynthia Orr, president-elect of the Texas Criminal Lawyers Association, 
told me Thursday that her organization has created two new positions to 
help deal with the huge number of cases that must be reopened because of 
Houston's crime lab scandal.

Orr, a San Antonio lawyer, said the title that goes with those new jobs is 
"innocence coordinator," and the lawyers hired to fill them will help 
direct the numerous volunteer lawyers and law school staff and law students 
expected to join the effort.

Association members also expect to be dealing with some questionable cases 
that came from an earlier lab evidence-handling crisis in San Antonio, Orr 

Case-by-case examination And who knows how many other labs might have 
similar problems that become apparent as other cities see what is happening 
here and start to look carefully at their own situations?

The unsettling fact is that, right now, we have no way of knowing how many 
innocent people may be in prison because of tainted evidence and testimony. 
Orr said the only way of dealing with this systemic problem is on a 
case-by-case basis, which means a great deal of time will pass before 
injustices can be set right.

We don't even know yet whether the mess was due entirely to incompetence, 
or whether some part of it might have involved something even more serious 
than botched evidence.

I keep remembering how Houston Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton said 
during a legislative hearing a month ago that if HPD crime lab employees 
have given false testimony, they should face criminal charges.

"I think if people got up on the stand and lied," said Dutton, "we have a 
name for that in Texas, and that is perjury."

Meanwhile, up in Swisher County, Tom Coleman was indicted by a grand jury 
Thursday. Three counts of aggravated perjury. That is a third-degree felony 
with a penalty range of two to 10 years, if he's convicted.

Coleman was the lone undercover cop responsible for a 1999 drug bust in 
Tulia that resulted in the wrongful convictions of 38 people, 13 of whom 
still are locked up.

A judge recommended a few weeks ago that all 38 convictions be overturned, 
including all who were coerced into accepting plea bargains, because 
Coleman's testimony was not credible.

I called the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin to ask whether there was 
some way to let those 13 people out immediately, like maybe on personal 
recognizance bonds, pending completion of all the paper shuffling and red tape.

The high court's staff attorney, Richard Wetzel, said he knows of no 
provision in the law that would allow for such a release, but if their 
defense attorneys have some idea how to do it, the defense attorneys could 
file a request.

'Not a means to release them' We had a spirited discussion. He kept 
explaining to me how the court operates and how the law is working as it is 
supposed to work in keeping those people locked up. I kept asking him how 
that is serving justice.

"Precedent," he said, "would indicate there is not a means to release them 
on bail."

I suggested that, considering the recent developments in the Tulia drug 
bust cases, someone surely could take this dilemma by the horns and find a 
means to set those people free. They've already been unjustly locked up 
almost four years. Every additional minute of delay is another minute of 
justice denied.

If I were a young lawyer applying for one of those two new innocence 
coordinator positions, I'd look at how long it is taking to fix the Tulia 
mess. And I would compare that small-town situation to the potential number 
of wrongful convictions that could have resulted from our big-city crime lab.

And I would make sure the Texas Criminal Lawyers Association offers a good 
retirement plan.
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