Monday, March 28, 2016

HPD crime lab Harris County District Attorney sat on exonerating evidence for five years

CORRECTION APPENDED BELOW. Ed. note: The exoneration registry account of this case included a key error misattributing withheld evidence to the HPD crime lab when really it was the DA's office that did not reveal exculpatory evidence to the defense. Grits regrets repeating the error but am glad doing so led to discovering the real story.

Original post. In the most recent Texas case listed on the National Exoneration Registry this morning, we learn of Johnny Adams, a Houstonian falsely convicted of drug possession. And we learn that, at least in 2009, the Houston PD crime lab Harris County DA wasn't particularly concerned about making sure prosecutors defense counsel knew about defendant-friendly results from lab tests. Here's how the registry described Mr. Adams' story:
On November 14, 2008, police in Houston, Texas arrested 52-year-old Johnny Adams after they confiscated a substance that field-tested positive for cocaine.

On January 9, 2009, Adams, who had a lengthy record of prior convictions for drug possession, pled guilty in Harris County Criminal District Court to a charge of possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to 90 days in the Harris County Jail.

Less than a month later, on February 5, 2009, the Houston Police crime laboratory tested the substance and no controlled substance was found. However, the prosecution was not informed of the result until July 2014.
This is a bit more egregious than your typical Harris County drug exoneration, which remain remarkable even if they're now coming out with such numbing frequency. HPD's crime lab (which has since been spun off as an independent agency) had evidence of a false conviction that could have liberated Mr. Adams from confinement, but for some reason failed to inform the prosecution but the DA's office didn't hand it over to the defense. So Adams served two months in the Harris County Jail after authorities discovered evidence which should have caused his case to have been thrown out and let him go free. And he Adams wasn't informed of the results until five years later.

The DA's office finally was told of acknowledged the drug-test results in mid-2014, at which time:
the Harris County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit informed Adams and his defense attorney and joined in a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus to vacate the conviction. A trial judge recommended that the writ be granted and in February 2016, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writ and vacated the conviction.

On March 11, 2016, the charge against Adams was dismissed.
CORRECTION: The Harris County DA's office emailed to correct this account. It turns out, the HPD crime lab did promptly pass along its drug-test results, but the DA's office did not reveal that information either to defense counsel or the court until 2014. HCDAO conviction integrity unit chief Inger Chandler emailed this morning to say:
Your post on the Johnny Adams case was brought to my attention yesterday morning.  Wanted to bring to your attention that the error in this case was not HPD’s.  The Brady notice that we filed with the court in 2014 (attached), contained a letter from HPD to the HCDAO notifying us of the “no controlled substance” lab result.  That letter was dated 2/6/2009.  I have confirmed that it was emailed to our office on that day.  It got missed somewhere on our end.

Bottom line… HPD didn’t drop the ball here.  This error is an example of what caused DA Devon Anderson to revamp our whole system for handling cases with variance lab reports (ie, no controlled substance, different weight, different drug).  To put it simply, our former processes had too many people involved… too many opportunities for things to get lost or jammed up in the pipeline, from initial notice to the filing of the writ.  In mid-2014, DA Anderson brought a retired prosecutor on board to help us with the project, and she went through every single lab notice she could find and checked to make sure the convictions had been remedied.  Some, we learned, had not. We have a list of cases that we are working through with the assistance of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office and other appointed counsel.

I’ve clarified with issue with the National Registry of Exonerations.

I would appreciate it if you would do the same on your blog.
So, there you go. The DA's office failed to disclose the information from February 2009 to July 2014. The HPD crime lab reported it in a timely manner.

MORE: Chandler followed up with another email to correct an additional tidbit from the exoneration registry account:
Mr. Adams was actually released from the Harris County Jail on 1/9/2009.  Though he received a 90-day sentence on that day, Harris County Jail time carries 2-for-1 credit, and Adams had 57 days of credit when he entered his plea.  I double-checked in our system, and he was, in fact, released on the 9th.  Doesn’t excuse the error, but it does at least show that he wasn’t held after the exonerating lab results.
I've edited the post above to jibe with Chandler's updated accounts. I appreciate her reaching out to clarify what actually happened in the case.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Bottom line, this case was more typical of the rest of the Harris County drug exonerations than I'd first understood - more a product of deviant prosecutorial priorities and culture, not the failure of the lab to convey exculpatory findings. From the perspective of a front-line prosecutor, for whom every "deal" on a case is a tick in the "win" column, this one resulted in a felony conviction and a sentence served. There was no incentive but righteousness for taking a win off the board, and in 2009 there wasn't anybody doing the job Inger Chandler is doing now, making sure this stuff gets fixed.

To me, these Harris County drug exonerations further highlight how high bail and pretrial detention combine to coerce pleas from the guilty and innocent alike, and this case is a perfect example. By any measure, Adams' punishment of 57 days in pretrial detention was served not as a consequence for bad behavior, but as an inducement for him to enter a plea bargain. Mr. Adams got out of jail the day he pleaded guilty. If he'd been released pretrial instead of held in jail, don't you think he might have been more likely to wait a month on his plea to see the results of a crime-lab test?


Anonymous said...

Aren't cases like this supposed to result in a Court of Inquiry? If not, why not? If so, how do? Does a complaint need to be filed or how does it work?

red raider attorney said...

90 days county jail for a State Jail Felony? Sounds like his defense team got a good deal. Makes you wonder if the prosecutors in 2009 knew something about it.

Anonymous said...

@red raider attorney-
Did you mean "offered" a good deal? Because no crime was actually committed. The defense team "got" screwed.

Anonymous said...

The defense got paid for delivering ineffective assistance of council. Some would call that a "good deal".
Depends on the horse you rode in on...

Anonymous said...

This is why I always look at defense counsel with serious side eye when they encourage a defendant to plea on a drug case without a lab report. Seriously? And on the other side, I've often questioned prosecutors who move forward on drug cases without lab reports and theft cases without knowing the total value of what was stolen.

Anonymous said...

The people must start making examples of un-honorable DA's that are putting innocent Americans and destroying families in prison/jail for the benefit of revenue and climbing the ladder to be un-honorable judges.

Anonymous said...

Given this all happened when Pat Lykos was the District Attorney, it should come as no surprise. She and anyone tied to that regime should be remembered as the hacks they were and never elected to office again. Kudos to DA Anderson for continually cleaning up after that pack of misfits we collectively sent packing in 2012.

Anonymous said...

Have you heard of Dillion Matt Bingham?
Smith County, this hell-hole called Tyler, TX. Leads the nation with "un-honorable" DA's
with the resume you have described. Clark, Skeen, Dodd, Bingham and Files. Why have these individuals been allowed to continue? Grits and his team should publicly expose this gang in the National media!!!

Grandmom said...

Will Grits be testifying at Criminal Justice hearing Wed. 1:30 E1.012 on county and city jail conditions?