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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Questionable police work

Though currently at war with Iraq, this nation now faces another important war, one being waged in the cities and streets of Texas. The brutal regime Texas’ citizens must deal with is not that of a dictator, but one imposed by the incompetent work of police ballistics and DNA labs such as the Houston Police Department’s crime lab and similar research facilities across the state. Only now are decades worth of illegitimate convictions stemming from tests conducted by these labs coming to light, according to The Houston Chronicle, which calls into question the validity and accuracy of ballistics and DNA evidence throughout Texas, specifically when peoples’ lives hang in the balance. The seriousness of the Iraqi conflict can’t be downplayed, but saving innocent civilian lives must start right here in Texas.
In a scathing indictment of the Houston Police Department’s crime lab, The Houston Chronicle this week cited an independent audit revealing that “sloppy science, an undertrained staff and a leaky roof” were tainting, if not totally corrupting, DNA evidence. In the multiple examples presented by The Chronicle, lab mistakes still resulted in convictions, as juries didn’t question the information police and prosecutors�gave them. But DNA evidence alone has always been questionable, in spite of the fact that it is often referred to as flawless by prosecutors and police. This assertion of flawlessness could not be any further from the truth, as minuscule DNA evidence can inadvertently be carried from one place to another and even slight human error can compromise samples.
As The Chronicle’s Mallory S. May put it, just because evidence is collected from a crime scene, it “does not necessarily provide any reliable information about when or how the DNA was originally deposited.” It is easy to see how the unreliable nature of this evidence, compounded by an ill-informed staff and sloppy science, could result in a faulty conviction and send an innocent man to death. DNA testing in Houston has now been discontinued and cases are being reviewed, according to The Chronicle. Though overdue, this is the Houston Police Department’s first step toward real justice in quite some time.
But as Robert Rosenberg, a lawyer for a Houston death row inmate, told The Chronicle, “It is not just DNA. In these cases we have (a weapons examiner) who is not following any recognized set of standards, (yet) he didn’t have any problems taking the stand to get convictions. Why should we trust him or anyone else in the department who is reviewing his work?” The answer, Mr. Rosenberg, is that we should not.
The clearest and most highly publicized example of this injustice is the case of Houston death row inmate Johnnie Bernal, who was convicted of a shooting death in 1994 and awaits execution, according to The Chronicle.
A weapons examiner testified against Bernal at his trial, claiming a bullet found in the murder victim matched Bernal’s gun. According to The Chronicle, the problems arose when the weapons examiner, Robert Baldwin, was test firing the gun, which he did 25 times before making a somewhat inconclusive ballistics match. Ballistics tests usually don’t even require three shots. Baldwin also coated the barrel of Bernal’s gun with a chemical solvent, according to The Chronicle, which is another inappropriate step in ballistics testing. The lingering question is how long Baldwin and others like him have been performing tests in this grossly amateurish manner.
Fortunately, state legislators decided Tuesday that a “comprehensive audit” of DNA and ballistics work in Harris County was necessary, but this should only be a first step. When lives hang in the balance, meticulous care must be taken in doing lab work that determines their fate. Shoddy police work will no longer suffice. If mistakes are made, police must begin erring on the side of caution and no longer on the side of guilt. As Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, told The Chronicle, “Harris County has the greatest number of people going to death row. Isn’t it ironic that it is the place where they can’t get it right?”

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