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On DNA testing and innocence

I’m glad to hear that District Attorney Pat Lykos is going to examine cases of wrongful conviction in Harris County. I’m sure there are plenty more than the five she plans to highlight, but the fact that she wants to focus attention on the issue and to require DNA testing in cases where it may matter is a welcome change from the past.

“We are going to establish clear policies regarding forensics,” Lykos told the Houston Chronicle recently. “In the (Ricardo) Rachell case, there clearly was forensic evidence and it was not tested and the question is, ‘Well, why not?’ ”

She is expected to release today the first-ever postmortem of a wrongful conviction in Harris County, where DNA evidence has exonerated five men in recent years but — until now — has prompted little dissection of what went wrong.

Lykos’ report will detail the factors that contributed to the conviction of Ricardo Rachell, who last year was cleared of the 2002 sexual assault of an 8-year-old boy for which he was serving a 40-year sentence.

The report will provide guidelines that spell out when prosecutors should order DNA tests and also will call for the creation of a regional crime lab, which Lykos has pushed for since her campaign last year.

[…]

In the Rachell case, Houston Police Department officers collected a rape kit from the victim and reference samples from Rachell in 2002. But that evidence never was tested until last year, when it pointed to another man who committed other assaults while Rachell was in prison. So far, no one from the District Attorney’s Office has been able to say why the evidence was not tested sooner. Lykos will use the Rachell case to push forward a plan to create a regional crime lab.

“You cannot expect a police department, no matter how large, to oversee a crime lab,” Lykos said.

Just so we’re clear here, Lykos’ opponent, former HPD Chief Clarence Bradford, campaigned on these ideas as well, and had outlined many of these issues well before Lykos was a candidate. Still, I’m very glad to see her take this action, as it is long overdue.

In the Rachell case, Houston Police Department officers collected a rape kit from the victim and reference samples from Rachell in 2002. But that evidence never was tested until last year, when it pointed to another man who committed other assaults while Rachell was in prison. So far, no one from the District Attorney’s Office has been able to say why the evidence was not tested sooner. Lykos will use the Rachell case to push forward a plan to create a regional crime lab.

“You cannot expect a police department, no matter how large, to oversee a crime lab,” Lykos said.

That was a Bradford idea, too. Suffice it to say that the time had come for these things.

The article doesn’t quote from any of the innocence activists, so we don’t know yet how this will be received. On its face, it looks good, and should help avoid bad situations. There are other reforms that can and should be implemented, regardless of whether or not the Lege gets around to compelling them, on subjects such as eyewitness identification, and taping interrogations. But this is a good start.

On the matter of taping interrogations, I strongly recommend you read thie Law.com article about an especially egregious case of wrongful conviction in Ohio, in which justice was only (eventually) done because the initial interrogation was recorded, and made it plain to any objective observer that the confession given – by a 12-year-old suspect – was bogus and coerced. I hope it makes you as angry as it made me; be sure to read it all the way to the end for the full impact. Thanks to Grits for the link.

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  1. […] District Attorney last year, and though he lost in a very close race, a number of the ideas he campaigned on have been adopted by the victor, DA Pat Lykos. Bradford is a 30-year resident of Houston who served […]

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