Lawmaker: Hire Special Master to Oversee Crime Lab Retests

Two months after a special investigator's final report on the Houston Police Crime Lab, a state lawmaker is urging local leaders to reconsider their reluctance to hire a so-called "special master" to oversee the re-testing of blood and DNA in hundreds of cases. Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports.

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At a public hearing here in Houston before the House urban affairs committee and general investigating and ethics committees, independent investigator Michael Bromwich, who concluded his two year, $5.3 million HPD probe in June, told lawmakers that he sees a special master as the best answer to the continuing review. HPD and the Harris County District Attorney's office are currently reviewing 186 cases involving blood and DNA testing that Bromwich questioned in his final report.

"The independence of a special master review would both bolster the public confidence in the fairness and objectivity of the review and insulate HPD and the District Attorney's office from any potential criticism that the review was colored in some way by conflicts between the interests of law enforcement and those of the prisoners in question."

But so far, Mayor White, District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal and Police Chief Harold Hurtt have resisted appointing a special master and say safeguards are now in place that will prevent the sloppy work seen in the past. Hurtt says the justice system in Harris County can't have someone hold its hand forever.

"At some time, the department, the DA's office, the court system, the criminal justice system of Harris County have to regain the confidence of the public and I think this is the opportunity with the right people and the right processes in place to get that done."

District Attorney Rosenthal says his office has already passed on information in the 186 cases in question to the judges who tried the cases and those judges are contacting attorneys to decide how their clients want to proceed. He says that's how he'd like to keep it.

"I don't want a special master deciding cases in the criminal justice system. I want judges doing that."

Houston Democratic State Representative Kevin Bailey is the chair of the House urban affairs committee. He's a proponent of a special master, most likely a retired judge or forensics organization, and says it doesn't make sense to allow HPD and the DA's office to oversee retesting in cases they botched in the first place.

"The community demands independence. The recommendation is a solid one. The experts agree that it's a valid recommendation and I think the job now is for use to impress upon the various leaders that there must be a special master. I have reason to believe we may be able to get there."

Bailey says if HPD and other city leaders don't agree, he'll consider legislation that would force the city and county to hire someone to oversee future retesting. The HPD crime lab first came under fire in late 2002 for faulty testing in hundreds of cases involving blood and DNA. The lab has since had a change in leadership and has been accredited in every section.

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