Unreliable Evidence Casts Pall Over Texas Criminal Justice System

Texas – a state with the dubious distinction of having the highest number and fastest rate of executions in the country – recently experienced a first in its criminal justice system: The governor pardoned a man posthumously after DNA evidence proved his innocence.

Miscarriage of Justice?

Tim Cole, a young college student at Texas Tech in the 1980s, was mistakenly identified as the kidnapper and rapist of a young college student when she picked him out of a photo lineup.

Insisting on his innocence, Cole refused to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. He was sentenced in 1986 to 25 years in prison, dying behind bars in 1999 from an asthma-induced heart attack, four years after a man convicted of similar acts allegedly started sending letters to the authorities confessing to the crime of which Cole had been convicted.

In 2008, several years after Cole’s death, DNA testing confirmed his innocence. Governor Rick Perry pardoned Cole in 2010, bringing a measure of closure to his family that had fought to clear his name for almost a quarter of a century.

In recognition of Cole’s case, Texas legislators passed the Tim Cole Act to provide financial compensation, tuition, support services and counseling to victims of wrongful conviction and incarceration.

More Controversy Over Evidence in Texas

Tim Cole died from disease in prison after his wrongful conviction. In a similarly controversial case,Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for a crime that, according to several arson experts, was not a crime at all.

Based largely on the questionable testimony of local arson investigators, Willingham was convicted of deliberately setting his modest house on fire in 1991 – either for insurance money or just in cold blood – killing his three infant daughters. Like Cole, Willingham refused to plead guilty, although he would have been given a life sentence in exchange. Proclaiming his innocence to the end, he was given a death sentence, carried out in 2004.

The evidence against Willingham came mainly from the findings of two arson investigators, Douglas Fogg and Manuel Vasquez. They concluded the fire had been deliberately set with a poured flammable liquid, based largely on V-shaped burns on the walls and scorched puddle patterns on the floors.

Shortly before Willingham was executed, these findings were reviewed by Dr. Gerald Hurst, a respected fire investigator with a scientific background. He found the theories on which the conviction was based to be without scientific merit and that the fire was almost certainly accidental. Dr. Hurst’s report on the subject concluded that the capital conviction was based on junk science, but his report was not enough to convince the Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency for Willingham. Since his execution, other fire experts have agreed with Hurst that the arson theories on which the conviction was based are scientifically invalid.

Trouble With Forensic Evidence

Forensic evidence, such as analysis of a fire scene, is the name given to physical evidence used in court to support a conviction, especially when that evidence is technical or scientific in nature. Common examples of such evidence used in criminal cases include:

  • Fingerprint matching
  • Firearms and ballistics testing
  • Handwriting analysis
  • Tire-track analysis
  • Blood-spatter patterning
  • Hair analysis
  • Canine scent lineups
  • Arson-site analysis

These crime-solving tools were developed by police departments and detectives over the years in attempts to solve crimes. The methods were generally not developed by scientists or with any scientific rigor, yet they are still used by courts and prosecutors to convict people of crimes, even those that could result in death-penalty sentences.

The labs that analyze this evidence are often part of the law enforcement apparatus, with no real barriers between those doing the testing and the prosecutors and police. Lab workers may feel pressure to come to particular conclusions or start their analyses with preconceived notions about what the outcome will be.

A terrible case in point is the widely publicized example of the Houston Police Department (HPD) crime lab, where many problematic practices have been uncovered, including incorrect procedures, falsified test results, inadequately maintained equipment, possible sample contamination, lack of standard protocols and poor recordkeeping. Faulty evidence from this lab led to inaccurate testimony in court.

The Justice Project reports that DNA testing has shown “inaccurate forensic evidence and testimony” to be the second-highest reason for wrongful convictions in Texas.

The National Scene

Attention on the unreliability of forensic evidence has been national in scope. First, the National Resource Council issued a congressionally ordered report on the national state of forensic science. The study by a panel of prominent experts in the legal, criminology, scientific and statistical fields culminated in a 2009 book that found forensic science in national crisis: inconsistent, without adequate protocols, and lacking in quality control and ethical standards. It called for a national overhaul of the forensic evidence-gathering system and the creation of a national agency to oversee the process.

Shortly thereafter, the United States Supreme Court issued the landmark case of Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts. Citing the national report’s dire findings of the state of forensic science, the court held that criminal defendants have a right to confront in court the scientists and other personnel responsible for the particular forensic results used against the defendants as evidence.

Aggressive Criminal Defense Imperative

If you or a loved one is accused of a crime in Texas, you face an entrenched and often sometimes unjust bureaucracy. You should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can investigate whether you have been treated fairly, whether your constitutional rights have been upheld, and whether forensic and other evidence used against you meets proper, reliable scientific testing standards and was gathered according to appropriate procedures. The price of inadequate legal representation in Texas can be your life itself, even if you did not commit a crime. A Texas criminal defense attorney familiar with recent developments in the forensic evidence arena will know what questions to raise in your case.