Sunday, April 28, 2013

Texas praised for response to DPS Houston crime lab scandal, compared to Yankees

If you've been following the DPS crime lab misconduct scandal out of Houston, first reported on this blog, that may endanger thousands of southeast Texas drug convictions, then you're probably aware, or should be, of the similar but even more profound scandal in Massachusetts involving a woman named Annie Dookhan and possibly others. Unlike the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Massachusetts courts have resisted a "global solution" to Dookhan's old cases, which number in the tens of thousands. (Jonathan Salvador worked on just fewer than 5,000 cases and unlike Dookhan did not allegedly seek to actively frame people.) In an article comparing Texas' response to the Salvador situation to the Massachusetts debacle, the Lone Star State earned praise in the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly for the rapid and decisive responses by the Department of Public Safety, some local District Attorneys and the courts to the Jonathan Salvador episode at the DPS crime lab in Houston. The column opened:
Two states with little else in common — Massachusetts and Texas — now face similar criminal justice scandals. In each state, misconduct at state labs has tainted thousands of drug convictions. One state, a leader in progressive criminal justice reform, is handling its lab scandal with efficiency, integrity and justice.

The other state is Massachusetts.
Since the editors generously removed the paywall at your correspondent's request, I'll refer you to the MLW for the full story instead of quoting more fully. But it's a good  reminder that, however imperfect Texas' response - and believe me, it's got flaws! - both DPS and, to me surprisingly, the Court of Criminal Appeals have dealt with the issue decisively and without nearly the amount of flailing and malaise that's going on in the Bay State. And the Forensic Science Commission investigation gave the issue a public face as well as some independent oversight and a venue for solutions-oriented networking across the system. Not perfect, but not bad. The author concluded, "The Texas example proves that the Massachusetts debacle cannot be blamed on Annie Dookhan alone. Her misconduct has created such a huge mess only because it occurred at a dysfunctional lab and within a justice system that, to this point, has delivered neither clear procedures nor just outcomes."

The author, who is one of the attorneys petitioning Massachusetts courts for relief in Dookhan's old cases, is definitely idealizing Texas' system: If we look good on this, the credit mainly goes to DPS for self-reporting the episode (if it didn't it would lose its accreditation) while in Massachusetts there was a coverup. And the Court of Criminal Appeals' choice to issue a global solution was likely borne as much of judicial economy as anything else, though it should result in a much cleaner, clearer outcome than the mess they've got going in Boston. 

The Massachusetts scandal is numerically a much bigger deal; Ms. Dookhan worked on 7-8 times as many cases as Jonathan Salvador. For that reason, Dookhan appears to have left that much smaller state's justice system in complete disarray while our episode was more localized to one region. Further, because Houston PD has its own crime lab, Salvador's cases were mostly from the surrounding counties, not the main urban area in the region. Dookhan worked on tens of thousands of cases - nobody knows exactly how many - in the heart of the state. So to the extent Texas has handled this mess better than Massachusetts, a big reason is that we have a much smaller problem.

Even so, this is far from over. Because of our lack of a public defender system and the tedious, case-by-case mechanisms of the habeas corpus process, Texas' Achilles' heel may be processing all the old claims. There's really not an obvious mechanism for doing so without cooperation from local prosecutors, even now that the Court of Criminal Appeals has said defendants are entitled to relief if Mr. Salvador were ever in sole custody of the evidence. If Texas looks "good" by comparison to our Yankee cousins in our response to this mess then at best it's a back-handed compliment. Anybody'd look good compared to the catastrophe they're working through in Massachusetts.

See the Texas Forensic Science Commission's recently released report (pdf) for more background on the Salvador case.

Related Grits coverage:

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