Willful Injustice

The cell doors sprang open for Ronald Taylor on October 9, after he had served 14 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Faulty forensic tests by the Houston Police Department’s infamously dysfunctional crime lab had been used to wrongfully convict him of rape.

Harris Count District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal-whose office put Taylor away-expressed regret, but concluded all’s well that ends well. “One of the things the public should know is the criminal justice system worked in this particular case,” he told the Houston Chronicle.

Try telling that to Ronald Taylor. His story, from beginning to end, is an indictment of a failed system. The saddest part is that there are easy fixes to what ails Texas’ criminal justice system, but state leaders refuse to implement them.

In 1993, a Houston rape victim identified Taylor from a police lineup. Investigators recovered a stained bed sheet from the woman’s apartment, but HPD’s lab tests concluded that no semen was present. Taylor received a 60-year sentence. It turns out, semen was on the sheet, and it didn’t belong to Taylor. A DNA test this year, requested by the New York-based Innocence Project, proved Taylor wasn’t the perpetrator. The actual rapist is serving a shorter jail term for not registering as a sex offender. The statute of limitations for the rape has expired. He is scheduled to leave prison in 2010. The truth would never have been revealed if not for the Innocence Project, an out-of-state, nongovernmental organization.

“I think there are a lot of people who have the same problem I had,” Taylor told the Houston City Council on the day of his release.

Ironically, a state agency already exists that-had it been funded and staffed-could have aided Taylor. The Legislature established the Texas Forensic Science Commission in 2005 to oversee the state’s crime labs, and investigate claims of innocence and forensic misconduct. Two-and-a-half years later, the commission remains an empty shell. It has convened just two meetings, and none in the past year. In 2007, the commission finally received funding from the Legislature to begin investigating claims of innocence from prisoners, though it has yet to do so.

Three of the nine commission spots are vacant-awaiting appointments by Gov. Rick Perry. The governor’s press office said no appointments are imminent. The commission has no staff, no structure or procedures, and no Web site. Asked how prisoners or their families could contact the commission about botched forensic evidence, Austin attorney Sam Bassett, the temporary chair, said, “They can send it to my office.” Minton, Burton, Foster & Collins PC, 1100 Guadalupe, Austin, Texas 78701-2198.)

The commission will hold its first organizational meeting at the end of October. “We do have a handful of complaints that have been filed with us. I hope we will address those complaints in the next three to six months,” Bassett said. Even when that happens, the commission lacks the money for extensive DNA retesting, and it also lacks subpoena power. “If somebody said, ‘No, you can’t have access to those samples,’ we’d be stuck,” Bassett said.

Taylor’s name joins a list of innocent Texans railroaded into prison by faulty forensic testing: George Rodriguez (17 years in prison), Brandon Moon (17 years), Ernest Ray Willis (17 years), and most tragically, Cameron Todd Willingham, an apparently innocent man already executed. The Innocence Project alone has uncovered eight instances of men wrongfully convicted by incompetent forensics in Texas.

There are likely many more innocent men rotting in Texas prisons. By hindering systemic reforms such as the Forensic Science Commission, the governor and other state leaders compound the injustice.

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Published at 12:00 am CST