The Harris County crime lab in Houston has been shaken by a number of scandals over the last few years. In each case, people convicted of crimes on the basis of tests conducted by the lab have been exonerated after inaccuracy and incompetence by the lab were revealed.
Six independent forensic scientists, in a report to be filed in a Houston state court today, said that a crime laboratory official - because he either lacked basic knowledge of blood typing or gave false testimony - helped convict an innocent man of rape in 1987.
The panel concluded that crime laboratory officials might have offered "similarly false and scientifically unsound" reports and testimony in other cases, and it called for a comprehensive audit spanning decades to re-examine the results of a broad array of rudimentary tests on blood, semen and other bodily fluids.
Elizabeth A. Johnson, a former director of the DNA laboratory at the Harris County medical examiner's office in Houston, said the task would be daunting.
"A conservative number would probably be 5,000 to 10,000 cases," Dr. Johnson said. "If you add in hair, it's off the board."
A state audit of the crime laboratory, completed in December 2002, has found that DNA technicians there misinterpreted data, were poorly trained and kept shoddy records. In many cases, the technicians used up all available evidence, making it impossible for defense experts to refute or verify their results. Even the laboratory's building was a mess, with a leaky roof contaminating evidence.
The DNA unit was shut down soon afterward, and it remains closed.
"In Harris County," said William C. Thompson, a professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine, who has followed the crime laboratory scandals closely, "defendants were prosecuted with flawed scientific evidence and defended by court-appointed lawyers who lacked the knowledge and resources to challenge it and complain about the injustice. Now that the scandal has come to light, the system is relying on the same inept, timid lawyers to make it right."
Let’s put some of these pieces together. In Harris County, people have been convicted of crimes on the basis of bad evidence for possibly twenty-five years. Since Texas reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the state has executed 323 people. Seventy-three of those executed were for crimes in Harris County. George Bush was governor during six of the years that Texas was executing people. During his time as governor, Bush never granted clemency and executed more people than any governor in the twentieth century.
The responsibility of the governor in the execution process of Texas is inescapable. No one is executed unless the governor signs an order with that person’s name on it that specifically and unambiguously says “kill this person.” Lacking exact statistics, I’ll estimate that 17 or 18 people from Harris County were executed on George Bush’s orders.
Knowing what we do now about the quality of scientific evidence used in trials that occur in Harris County, and knowing what we always have about the low quality of defense counsel allowed for trial and appeal in Texas, it is very probable that George Bush ordered the execution of an innocent man. The only real question is how many did he order killed.