A new update in the ongoing Houston Police Crime Lab investigation shows employees in the department’s blood and DNA sections made serious errors at an alarming rate until just three years ago.
Independent investigator Michael Bromwich is about halfway through the second phase of the probe, with the latest findings based on more than 1,100 case reviews. Although Bromwich praises certain sections of the lab for high quality work, he says the latest reviews found serious problems with the lab’s serology and DNA sections. Of 80 serology cases reviewed, 18 had major issues. Of 67 DNA cases reviewed, there were 27 major issues, a 40 percent failure rate. “I think the rate of major issues in both the DNA and serology cases did surprise and trouble us greatly,” says Bromwich. “We obviously knew from early-on that there were grave questions surrounding the quality of DNA work and to a lesser extent, questions about the quality and reliability of the serology work. But I think our findings on the cases that we’ve reviewed to date make things appear to be worse than what we expected.”
The report also finds problems with the DNA work done in the cases of three current death row inmates, including one case in which potentially exculpatory DNA results were withheld, and questionable results reported instead. “This is not to make any comment or render any opinion as to whether the faulty DNA analysis that we focus on was instrumental in the conviction of the individual. Indeed, in one of the cases in which we are most troubled by the results, the questionable evidence was introduced only into the penalty phase,” says Bromwich.
Because of the poor results in the DNA and serology sections, the Houston Police Department is adjusting the parameters of its own case review, with plans to look at files further back than the probe’s current time frame. “There’s been an expansion of the review of the cases to 1980 on to 1987 where the RFP started in 1987,” says Crime Lab director Irma Rios. “There is, looking at a historical perspective on the cases, reviewing those as well on those individuals that have been indentified through the independent investigator.”
Houston City Councilman Adrian Garcia, a former police officer and head of council’s Public Safety Committee, says the latest bad news is yet another blow to the crime lab’s reputation, but part of a needed wake-up call that should lead to reform. “This just goes to prove that the money that we’re investing in Bromwich is money well-invested. It’s not the kind of news we want to hear, but we weren’t asking him to give us good news. We were asking him tell us the truth, and that is what he’s done for us,” says Garcia.
The Bromwich investigation could now include more DNA and serology case reviews after the latest findings. A final report should be out before the end of the year.