Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Caller Times: Do Perry and Dewhurst Care About Wrongful Convictions?

Kudos to the Corpus Christi Caller Times for calling out Governor Rick Perry and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst for their cavalier attitude toward wrongful convictions based on faulty forensic lab work.

The paper reports that both men have so far failed to appoint representatives to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, created by the 79th Texas Legislature in 2005 to "investigate potential
instances of misconduct or negligence" in the labs, while the legislation's author says there's no money for the Commission even if they make their appointments ("Texas crime labs call for corrective action," Jan. 11). The Caller Times does a good job arguing why crime lab reform should be at the top of the state's to-do list:

Driving home the point was the release Wednesday of a review of 1,100 cases run through the Houston crime lab. A former Justice Department inspector, Michael Bromwich, reported that he found "major issues" in 27 of 67 DNA analyses he scrutinized. He also found flaws in 18 analyses performed by the lab's serology section.

In one chilling instance, exculpatory evidence in a capital punishment case was not reported. The death row inmate in question, and two others whose cases came into question, are still alive, but that's hardly reassuring.

It's worth pointing out that these are issues of life and death - and justice. It is reasonable to suggest that Messrs. Perry and Dewhurst move the Forensic Science Commission appointments to the very top of their To Do lists. And if money is indeed the issue, all concerned with the matter should join forces to shake it loose. Lives hang in the balance.

Exactly. There's only one thing missing in their analysis: If Perry or Dewhurst cared to do anything about the crime labs, they would have done it when the Legislature was in session in 2005, or the Governor could have added it to the call in one of the specials. That's the missing piece to understanding why no one has been appointed. Creating this BS commission was never more than public relations cover, an excuse not to do what needs to be done because that would cost too much money. As I told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in testimony on the subject last year on behalf of ACLU:
What’s most needed to ensure the system’s integrity is independent verification. The state should spend more money for indigent defendants to pay for lab costs and scientific investigations to refute shoddy state crime lab work. In other words, give the adversarial system enough resources to flesh out the truth. No one has a greater interest in ensuring that crime lab results are correct than defendants, so the most certain way to validate crime lab results is to let their attorneys hire experts to conduct independent analysis.

Texas should also expand defendants' discovery access to information about crime lab tests, allowing defendants to obtain labs' error rates and making the information admissible during trial.
That's the real way to solve this -- expanding discovery and making adequate funds available to indigent defendants for independent experts. That would cost many millions of dollars the state doesn't have, though, so the problem won't be solved by any commission, no matter who they appoint.

See this
related Austin Statesman editorial reprinted in the Victoria Advocate this week, and this item at Prawfsblawg.

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