Thousands of felony and misdemeanor drug convictions across Texas may be thrown out after the state's highest court ruled Wednesday that any case with evidence handled by a disgraced Department of Public Safety chemist is suspect.Of course, back in March Grits was already predicting thousands of cases - potentially every one Salvador ever worked on - could be overturned, a possibility that seems ever-more certain with each passing Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling related to the case. Long before March, it was apparent that hundreds of cases may be overturned in instances where evidence had been destroyed and was unavailable for retesting. Then the CCA's sweeping judgment that any case was tainted in which evidence was at some point in Salvador's custody meant nearly 5,000 cases are in jeopardy.
The sweeping ruling is the latest chapter in a saga that began last year with an investigation into the shoddy work of forensic examiner Jonathan Salvador who handled nearly 5,000 drug cases, including about 400 in Harris County, from 2006 to 2012.
"What it means is that any of the cases that Salvador was responsible for are suspect, and the courts will not respect those convictions, and they'll be overturned," said Alex Bunin, head of the Harris County Public Defender's Office. "In Harris County, it could be hundreds."
The Coty case decided this week was one where the Harris County DA thought it had the best possible chance of winning in spite of the high court's anti-Salvador rulings. In an earlier report ("Crime lab analyst kept on job despite shoddy work," April 6), the Chronicle mentioned that:
In Leroy Edward Coty's case, Anderson said, there are videotapes and other evidence that could secure a conviction without using the drug results tested by Salvador.Coty could be retried using videotapes or other evidence, presumably, but the state can't use the allegedly tainted drugs as evidence.
Coty, 42, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2010 after pleading guilty to possession of more that 400 grams of cocaine, according to court records.
Columnist Lisa Falkenberg had earlier published a one-off piece about the Fort Bend County District Attorney's lack of diligence in responding when he was notified that hundreds of old cases may be in jeopardy. But except for the above-quoted April 6 article, mostly the Chronicle has ignored the Salvador episode. Given how many cases will be affected, this mess would benefit from the sort of diligence the Boston Globe has applied to their higher profile but similar crime-lab imbroglio.
See the Forensic Science Commission's report (pdf) on this episode for more background.
MORE: In the Huntsville Item (June 7), Walker County DA David Weeks said his office would not attempt to retry Salvador's cases:
“It’s clear that all the cases (Salvador) worked on are irreparably damaged,” Weeks said. “The defendants will be appointed attorneys and arrangements will be made for expunging their records. It blew up in our faces.”Related Grits coverage:
At first, the offices tried to retest the available evidence in the cases. That didn’t turn out as expected either, according to Weeks.
“Those results were haphazard,” he said. “In a case where (Salvador) said there was drugs, there wouldn’t be. And when he said there were no drugs, there were drugs.”
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