A Harris County man who spent 22 years in prison for a rape that forensic tests now indicate he did not commit is expected to be freed Thursday.
Gary Alvin Richard's expected release is the latest case to discredit the Houston Police Department's crime lab, which has been under scrutiny since 2002 because of inaccuracies.
Prosecutors and Richard's defense attorney said they will ask a judge to set him free on bail. But the two sides differ on whether recent tests clear Richard of a 1987 rape conviction that resulted in a life sentence.
Defense attorney Bob Wicoff said the new tests prove his client's innocence. Prosecutors agree that the new results contradict crime lab evidence but said they do not know if Richard is innocent.
If cleared, Richard would be the fourth Harris County man to have his conviction overturned because of faulty forensics from the Houston crime lab.
His case was revived as part of a review of more than 150 cases involving questionable blood-typing evidence from the lab. Lawyers discovered in Richard's case that crime lab analysts had conflicting results, but reported conclusions favorable only to the prosecution.
This is another example of a "team spirit" mentality that contributes to many forensic-based false convictions. Houston crime lab workers apparently weren't acting as scientists seeking independent answers but considered themselves part of the prosecution's team, omitting lab results that might not favor the side they wanted to win.
Before this, in the most recent, previous exoneration in Houston, Ronald Taylor's false conviction also resulted from HPD crime lab errors; in that case, bad forensic analysis from the Houston crime lab corroborated an incorrect witness identification. These examples show how a too-close relationship between detectives and crime lab workers can corrupt forensic results. When lab workers are told too much information about the case - e.g., "a witness ID'd him and we just need you to confirm" - they go into the test with a bias about what the results should be.Such lab errors (if you can call knowingly withholding exculpatory findings an "error") constitute double tragedies because not only does an innocent person go to prison, the real perpetrator cannot be brought to justice. In both cases, the statute of limitations had run out for the actual perpetrator by the time the exonerating evidence was discovered.
While Texas and Houston have both made initial investments and taken first steps toward improving forensic science (by spending money to boost capacity, e.g., and requiring accreditation), the state has yet to do what it takes to make crime labs more independent from law enforcement or figured out how to change the institutional culture that encourages this kind of behavior.
Related Grits posts:
- Houston's Ron Taylor case shows worst possible outcome from forensic errors
- Crime lab workers suffered from 'team spirit' mentality
- Correcting forensic science errors
- Background materials on shoddy forensics
- NAS Report: Many forensic disciplines prone to error
- Justice system commonly relies on shoddy forensic science
- Shoddy forensic science ruins real people's lives
- CSI-Houston would be dark comedy