Sunday, 9 December 2007

Innocence Project, county team to review 180 cases

The Associated Press

HOUSTON -- The Innocence Project of Texas, which tries to overturn wrongful convictions, is teaming up with Harris County to review 180 cases of questionable blood-analysis work performed by the Houston Police Department's crime lab, officials said Friday.

The cases were identified as having "major issues" in a final report earlier this year from a special investigator hired by the city of Houston to investigate the lab.

The project's chief counsel, Jeff Blackburn, said his organization usually finds itself at odds with government officials and prosecutors. His group is an offshoot of the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal clinic that has helped exonerate inmates across the country.

"This is a historic process that Harris County is getting involved in," Blackburn said.

The Houston crime lab's work has been under scrutiny since 2002, when the DNA section was shut down. Inaccuracies were later found in four other lab divisions that test firearms, body fluids and controlled substances. The DNA section has since reopened.

Three inmates have been released from prison because of mistakes by the lab: two men wrongfully convicted of rape and another man convicted of kidnapping and rape whom prosecutors decided not to retry.

The cases being reviewed, some of which date to the 1980s, involve several Death Row inmates and others convicted of violent crimes such as robbery and rape.

Retired state District Judge Mary Bacon is presiding over the probe. During a meeting Friday with defense attorneys and prosecutor Marie Munier, she praised the Innocence Project's help with the review. Munier's office has pledged its cooperation.

The Innocence Project of Texas will provide 40 to 50 law students in Houston, Dallas and Lubbock who can help lawyers review case files and sort through legal documents.

It will be similar to a Dallas County review in which the Innocence Project has teamed up with officials to examine more than 400 cases in which inmates have requested DNA testing. Over the past five years, DNA tests have exonerated 14 inmates in Dallas County, Blackburn said.

In the first three months of the Dallas review, 57 cases have been evaluated. Of these, seven will have DNA testing, said Blackburn, an Amarillo-based lawyer.

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