Thursday, March 07, 2013

DPS crime lab SNAFU may overturn thousands of years worth of drug sentences

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals yesterday approved nine new habeas corpus petitions from defendants convicted of drug crimes after a Department of Public Safety crime lab worker in Houston was found last year to have falsified test results. That brings the total number of defendants with overturned convictions so far to 11, with many more to come. Those 11 people had been sentenced collectively to 90 years, including one 32-year sentence.

Though there may yet be more instances discovered where ex-lab employee Jonathon Salvador allegedly fabricated results, the habeas petitions granted so far have been in cases where the drug evidence had been destroyed post-conviction and so retesting is impossible. The general counsel at the Texas Forensic Science Commission has estimated evidence has been destroyed in 25-50% of the nearly 5,000 cases from 36 different counties that Mr. Salvador worked on during his time at DPS.

All the habeas writs granted so far have come from Galveston County but that's only because District Attorney Jack Roady's office has been especially diligent about identifying cases where no evidence exists and processing them as promptly as possible. But expect hundreds more people released based on successful writs from other Southeast Texas counties. From what Grits knows of the incident, if I were a betting man I'd put the over-under for how many cases will eventually be overturned at around 1,500. Indeed, that's arguably a conservative estimate.

Extrapolating, the average sentence of the first 11 defendants freed based on this fiasco was just over 8 years. Granted, 11 is a small sample, but if that average holds up and Grits' guesstimate of 1,500 affected defendants comes to fruition, that'd be 12,000 years worth of prison sentences overturned as a result of one, shoddy lab worker!

This incident hasn't received nearly as much publicity as a similar episode in Massachusetts where a discredited "rogue chemist" worked on nearly 40,000 cases over the last decade. In fact, I haven't seen these successful habeas writs covered at all outside of this blog. But it's a pretty darn big deal nonetheless. In all seriousness, there will likely be enough inmates walk out of TDCJ over this SNAFU that, by the time it's done, the Legislature could consider closing an additional prison unit. Mind blowing!

See prior, related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Considering how fast some prosecutors want evidence destroyed so it doesn't later lead to an overturned case "against" them, it is interesting to see them now being hoisted by their own petard.

gravyrug said...

And this is just one guy. I wonder how many prison units we could get rid of with a systematic review of crime labs?

Anonymous said...

On other news, they are scheduled for a healthy raise this session. Their proposal is to bump their classifications up one notch, which equates to a promotion to athe next higher pay grade.

Anonymous said...

More McLennan County Madness

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, one of the many reasons that folks subscribe, refer & return on a daily basis is directly tied to the fact that you cover / uncover the covered up topics, the main-stream media doesn't. When they do decide to, we either get a watered down political version or a sound bite. That’s what happens when the media assigns a reporter to cover a certain police department, you get their version of events or nothing at all.

Re: 'another' friggin SNAFU. Above an identifiable Anon. GFB regular (gravyrug), wonders about something that made me wonder about something in return.

Just think if the folks at the TAB were to succeed in their endeavors and the penalties for possession of weed, a dirty bong or pipe or ash tray with traces or seeds & or a few pills didn't require the taxpayers' to pick up a crime lab tab and a subsequent prison tab. Instead, the police were allowed to concentrate on criminals. That would require a State Rep. to file a bill and since they are too busy filing bills aimed at ridiculous back-scratching crapola, I'll stop wondering. Thanks anyway.

*Did anyone take a urine & hair sample prior to showing him the door or review the crime lab security camera footage to see exactly what he took home or search his crib? Somthing says he was taste testing & running a pharmacy out of his trunk on the weekends in addition to

Anonymous said...

After this debacle, good luck getting lab analysts to report their mishaps in the lab. And good luck getting lab managers to self-report problems to outside agencies. Just deny that a problem exists and sweep it under the rug when no one is looking.
The black box just got blacker.

And, oh yeah, DPS is responsible for crime lab "accreditation" in all Texas Forensic Labs. If they can't find problems in their own labs, how are they supposed to identify problems in other non-DPS labs?
What a joke.

Anonymous said...

Grits, if you read all of the cases, there are four for which evidence still exists: Sereal (the new opinion, not last week's, which was withdrawn), Hinson, Smith, and Hobbs (which was published). The CCA granted relief in all cases.

There was even one, Smith, where evidence *was* retested and they still granted relief. The info is buried in each individual opinion, but it's there. Not every case is only for when the evidence was destroyed.