Friday, June 20, 2008

Houston's Ron Taylor case demonstrates worst possible outcome from forensic errors

The third exoneree convicted with flawed evidence from the Houston crime lab received word this week of his pardon by Texas Governor Rick Perry, the Houston Chronicle reported today ("Ron Taylor says pardon brings new meaning to life," June 20):

Ronald Gene Taylor on Thursday broke free of the bonds of the wrongful rape conviction that has defined his life for 15 years after receiving news of a pardon confirming his innocence.

"It's been hard to get restarted," Taylor said in a telephone interview from Atlanta. "Little things, like filling out a job application or renting an apartment are hard when you have to say you are a convicted felon. Now, I am officially a free man. I am so relieved." ...

Taylor, 48, has worked to reclaim his life in the eight months since a Harris County judge ordered him released from prison after DNA evidence cleared him of a 1993 Houston rape. He moved to Atlanta in October and reunited with the woman who patiently had waited for him. In December, they married. This spring he started his own lawn care business.

But the shadow of his conviction darkened each of those milestones.

Taylor was accused in the 1993 attack of a woman in her Third Ward home, which sat less than a mile from where Taylor lived. He maintained his innocence, but prosecutors built a case on the victim's identification of Taylor and the now-discredited testimony of a Houston Police Department crime lab analyst.

Jurors at Taylor's 1995 trial found him guilty, and a judge sentenced him to 60 years in prison.

As in many wrongful convictions, evidential errors by investigators multiplied one another's bad effects: A flawed eyewitness identification was "corroborated" by flawed crime lab testimony.

Worse, there's little reason to believe the same thing couldn't happen again. Even if HPD fixed problems at the crime lab (and nobody believes they're there yet), Houston police are still using the same eyewitness ID procedures they did in 1993. The checks and balances simply failed and an innocent man paid the price. He may not be the last one, either. Reported the Chronicle:

Taylor's case has served as a rallying point for efforts to review cases that may have relied on faulty evidence from the HPD crime lab. Taylor's first act as a free man was to set off from the Harris County Jail to City Hall, where he told council members that they must take action to ensure other innocents are not wrongly imprisoned.

The next day, Harris County's criminal district judges set in motion a plan to appoint attorneys to review about 200 cases with blood and body fluid evidence similar to that in Taylor's case.

"Ron's case really jump-started the review of all the serology cases," Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck said. "It is a reminder as to how much damage this crime lab did over the decades and how we will never get a full and complete understanding of how many miscarriages of justice resulted from their incompetence.

Finally, Taylor's case underscores the truism that when wrongful convictions occur, it not only harms the innocent but frees the guilty from facing consequences for their actions:

The new evidence cleared Taylor and pointed to another man, Roosevelt Carroll, who has a history of violent sexual crimes. Carroll is serving a 15-year sentence in a Texas prison for failing to register as a sex offender. He cannot be prosecuted for the 1993 attack because the statute of limitations for filing charges has expired.

You have to feel for the victim who suffered the double whammy of a) realizing her identification helped convict the wrong guy and b) that the real perpetrator can't be charged with the offense. That's truly a worst-case scenario outcome, isn't it?

RELATED: Here's a Dallas case where, similarly, the conviction of an innocent man wound up ensuring the actual perpetrator could never be prosecuted.

No comments: