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Senators Urge Texas Rangers to Investigate Crime Lab

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

"Enough is enough," said Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), as he announced a letter he and Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) sent to City of Houston officials urging them to bring the Texas Rangers in to investigate the "crisis" in the Houston Police Department's crime lab.

Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, was joined at a press conference today by Williams and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, seeking action that will "restore confidence in every sector of the state" regarding crime labs to prove that the collection and protection of evidence is handled correctly.

The Houston Crime Lab has come under scrutiny of late after nearly 300 boxes of unopened evidence were recently uncovered in the lab.

"We have got to take the cloud off Harris County's criminal justice system," said Whitmire.

The Houston senator said it is time for the city of Houston to "see the emergency" in this issue. He said that the city and state can no longer wait for Houston officials to place someone in an oversight capacity to ensure the cataloging and protecting of evidence in the property room in the Houston Crime Lab.

Whitmire said that at a Jan. 4 hearing of his committee, committee members were told that nothing in the 280 unopened boxes of evidence pertained to any death penalty cases. However, he said that he was contacted last week by the Harris County District Attorney and Houston Police Department officials and upon touring the lab, found that the boxes did in fact include evidence in 28 capital murder cases. Twenty persons in those cases have already been executed, said Whitmire, one has died of natural causes and seven are still on Death Row.

"We need an outside oversight review - an auditor, a special master," said Whitmire. He said Houston officials told him earlier this month that they were taking applications, and expected a "project leader" to be in place in April. "That's too late, too slow," said the senator.

"To be tough on crime, you have to be fair and accurate and just." He said it is time for the city of Houston to see the urgency that he and Sen. Williams see.

"We are not going to continue to allow anyone to drag their feet," said Whitmire, noting action on the issue is "long overdue." He said he is not questioning any individual's integrity, but said the process demands an independent review. The Texas Rangers are available immediately, said Whitmire, and stand "ready and willing" to participate in the investigation.

"We need to let light shine in on what's going on," said Williams, noting that there is a long history of problems that have gone unsolved. "We need transparency," he said, urging the Houston Police Department to accept the state's offer.

Dewhurst said Texas is tough on crime, but the state also must be fair and just. He added that he is also concerned regarding victims of crime. "If the wrong person is convicted, we let the guilty person walk free and potentially commit another heinous crime," he said.

The lieutenant governor said he has asked Whitmire to look into the contaminated evidence at the crime lab, and determine if there is a need for a centralized state lab or regional labs.

"If the fourth largest city in the United States (Houston) can't run a crime lab, what confidence do we have in smaller cities with fewer resources?" asked the lieutenant governor. He said the state also will have to look backwards - to make sure no innocent man or woman has been convicted of a crime they didn't commit, and make sure no guilty person goes free. "We need to make sure we have a protocol beyond any question so the important element in a conviction is not in controversy."

Dewhurst said if the people of Texas lose confidence in one of the basic elements of the state's criminal justice system - the use of DNA and forensic evidence - that creates a huge problem in the system. While he said he does not see the need for a moratorium on the death penalty, which Whitmire supported after the discovery of the unopened boxes of evidence, the lieutenant governor said he supports efforts to solve the problems to ensure that there are not any questions unanswered regarding convictions.

The lieutenant governor questioned what the state's long-term responsibility should be with regard to crime lab analyses. Currently, each crime lab throughout the state operates under its own standards, he said. It is a "bit of a patchwork" system when there needs to be one "gold standard" that applies to all crime labs.