Process To Review Questionable Crime Lab Cases Starts Monday

It's a process that could take months or even years, but starting this Monday a retired state district judge will begin sorting through nearly 200 questionable serology cases in which evidence was tested by the Houston Police Crime Lab. Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports.

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It's safe to say retired 338th District Court Judge Mary Bacon has her work cut out for her. Starting Monday, she'll preside over a special, consolidated docket handling only issues involving 180 serology cases flagged for intensive review. The first step in the process is for Bacon and three lawyers to begin notifying prisoners who were convicted based on serology testing that a review of their cases is underway. This is District Courts Administrator Jack Thompson.

"Part of the planning has been making contacts with the various correctional institutions across the state where we can conduct closed-circuit television hearings and determine from those hearings whether or not there's a lawyer needed to represent them at the next step of the proceedings."

Although not the "special master", Independent Investigator Michael Bromwich called for in his final report on the HPD lab earlier this year, Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association President Patrick McCann says it makes sense to centralize the questionable cases.

"With 22 felony courts and the potential for things to fall through on the hand-off between the HPD, the District Attorney's office and then the individual courts themselves, this is really a much better way to go."

At the same time, a separate panel of three attorneys will review all 180 cases to see if shoddy serology testing played a central role in the convictions and if additional tests should take place. Houston attorney Bob Wicoff so far is the only member of that review team.

"Hopefully I'll get two co-counsel within a month or so but even with three lawyers it's going to take a long time. You have to familiarize yourself with their cases, which usually requires reading voluminous records and then you have to look at the serology testing that was done and you have to see what role it played in their conviction and see whether it was a crucial role."ξξ

University of Houston Law Professor and Director of the Texas Innocence Network David Dow says the review effort is woefully understaffed.

"This is not something that three people can do on a part-time basis. This is a job that probably takes three or four, maybe even five people to be working on on a full-time basis. I think that at least the one person who the judges have appointed to the task so for far is highly competent, but I think that the model that they've developed and the staffing that they have in mind are not nearly sufficient for the magnitude of the problem."

There's no specific timetable for completion of the review, but everyone involved agrees the process could take several years to finish.

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