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UHLC’s Thompson argues for independent crime labs at reading of her latest book

Sandra Guerra Thompson
Sandra Guerra Thompson

June 15, 2015 - A near-capacity crowd filled Brazos Bookstore, one of Houston’s premiere independent booksellers, earlier this month as University of Houston Law Center Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson discussed and signed copies of her new book, “Cops in Lab Coats.”

The book, subtitled “Curbing Wrongful Convictions through Independent Forensic Laboratories,” is an examination of the longstanding practice across the country of having forensic laboratories run under the auspices of law enforcement agencies.

Thompson, who before joining the UHLC faculty in 1990 served as a prosecutor in New York, is a member of the governing board of the Houston Forensic Science Center. The independent agency was created in 2014 after the city decided to remove its crime lab, which had been plagued by scandal for more than a decade, from the oversight of the Houston Police Department.

Thompson told the bookstore audience that in early 2012, she received a call from then-City Attorney David Feldman asking her to consider joining the board. She explained that her subsequent appointment by Mayor Annise Parker likely stemmed from her previous appointment by then-Gov. Rick Perry to the state’s Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions.

That body, which existed from 2009-2011, ultimately issued a report proposing several legislative changes, some of which were enacted, including what Thompson said is the best model policy for eyewitness identification procedures in the nation.

“Like most Houstonians, I was very well aware of the problems with the HPD crime lab,” said Thompson who also directs the law school’s Criminal Justice Institute. “It was unrelenting bad press for many, many years. Even though HPD was making serious efforts to try to improve the lab, there just continued to be problems.

“So when I got the call from Mr. Feldman, I was really excited to be part of the group that would make fundamental changes at the lab. Forensic labs are really, really critical to outcomes in criminal cases,” she said.

But there was one slight hitch.

“I really knew nothing about forensic science,” she said. “And that struck me as something of a problem if I was going to have something intelligent to say about how this laboratory could be extracted from the police department and then reformed to make the management better.”

Thompson, whose primary research interest had been problems associated with the use of eyewitness identification in criminal cases, decided to switch her focus to forensic science, delving deeply enough into the subject that it would become the subject of her new book.

Originally, she thought she might write a memoir of her service on the Houston crime lab board and its transformation. “It would be like writing a novel. And I thought this would be so much fun, something outside my normal line of work,” she said.

But as she researched the subject of problems associated with forensic laboratories operating under the imprimatur of law enforcement agencies, she had a realization.

“The Houston story is really every city’s story, nationwide, and every state, and even at the federal level. This is a national problem; it’s not unique to Houston,” she said. “My real audience had to be national if I was going to make this book really meaningful. And so I set out to make the case for independent labs at all levels of government – local, state and federal.”

Thompson said she knew the general law enforcement and forensic science communities would challenge her thesis, so she had to work hard to document every fact and assertion she made in the book.

In order to tell the wider national story, Thompson begins “Cops in Lab Coats” by telling a Houston story – that of George Rodriguez, a man who was wrongfully convicted of a 1987 rape in the Denver Harbor area. The prosecution’s case was largely based on the testimony of two HPD crime lab analysts who had tested three separate types of biological evidence, which was later shown to have been botched. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

“There was simply no way, back in 1987, even for a good criminal defense lawyer to challenge the testimony of two separate crime lab analysts,” Thompson said.

It was not until the Innocence Project of New York became involved and a single hair was found in the case file – after it was believed that all of the biological evidence in the case had been destroyed – did Rodriguez get a new day in court.   

New DNA testing ultimately proved his innocence, and Rodriguez was released from prison in 2004 after spending 17 years in prison. Rodriguez later sued the city of Houston. A federal jury found that the incorrect forensic testimony had been the “moving force” behind his conviction and the police department leadership had shown “deliberate indifference” to longstanding problems within the crime lab.

The jury awarded Rodriguez $5 million in civil damages. Thompson quoted Rodriguez, who told reporters, “Ain’t no amount of money is gonna even my scale. I lost my dad, and my girls have been through hell. I’m grateful for the jury verdict, but no money can replace what I’ve lost.”

The city appealed, and after years of legal wrangling, the parties reached a $3.1 million settlement. In a press conference, Parker publicly apologized to Rodriguez on behalf of the city.

“What had become clear was that the crime laboratory had serious problems. The state audit uncovered a dysfunctional organization with untrained staff, contamination problems, and shoddy science,” Thompson said.

“The worst of the nightmare was over for George Rodriguez, but cases like his had exposed the hidden truth about the deep problems lurking in many police crime laboratories:  false, misleading and exaggerated forensic testimony too often wreaked havoc on the innocent. For Houston, and for so many other cities and states, the efforts to understand the causes of a dysfunctional police crime laboratory, and more importantly, to identify the solutions, were only beginning,” she said.

After the reading, Thompson engaged in a lively question-and-answer session with the audience.

“Cops in Lab Coats, Curbing Wrongful Convictions through Independent Forensic Laboratories” is published by Carolina Academic Press. Copies may be purchased at Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet.

Click here to see a video of the full presentation.

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