False Positive: An Introduction to Houston’s Prosecution Problem
By Geoff West
Art by Blake Jones
In Sept. 2006, 20-year-old Corey Anthony Love was arrested by Houston police for allegedly possessing more than a gram of cocaine, according to the field test. Two days later, he appeared in court, pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to 7 months in jail.
In 2011, Jerrell Bell was stopped by Houston police, who arrested the 19-year-old for what officers believed was .03 grams—less than half the weight of a small paper clip—of “white powder” cocaine, according to the field test. Bell had previous convictions of drug possession, so he took a plea bargain and was sentenced to four months.
Three months after Bell was released, the white flakes were finally tested for the presence of narcotics by the Houston police crime laboratory. It was negative. In Love’s case, the crime laboratory waited until 2012—six years after he was arrested—to test the white powder. Again, no cocaine.
The cases of Love and Bell aren’t unique. In 2013, Texas led the nation in criminal exonerations, and no county in the state had more wrongful convictions overturned last year than Harris County. Three of the four exonerations were blamed on the Houston crime lab’s failure to test for narcotics in the seized substance before the conviction.
Since 2009, 10 people in Harris County have been exonerated stemming from delays in crime lab testing, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan and Northwestern law schools. So far in 2014, there have been two more.
All pled guilty, often in plea deals to avoid harsher sentences. They combined to serve nearly four years of wrongful imprisonment; half served their entire sentence before being declared innocent.
Problems at Home
The Houston police crime lab has a long history of incompetence. In 2012, a lab tech named Jonathan Salvador was suspended by the Department of Public Safety, which staffs the lab, after discovering he had a habit of falsifying lab tests results. More than a dozen convictions have been overturned following a review of his work, which included more than 5,000 cases.
Before Salvador, a state audit found the Houston crime lab so unreliable that it ordered the lab to stop all DNA testing immediately. A private company was also hired recently to come in and help with the lab’s backlog of untested rape kits.
Texas attorney Bob Wicoff has assisted in helping two wrongfully convicted prisoners prove their innocence with the help of DNA testing. Michael Anthony Green, one of the clients, was released in 2010 after DNA testing proved his innocence after 27 years in prison. Wicoff also led an audit into the practices of the Houston police crime lab and their handling of 200 homicide and sexual assault cases from the 1980s. The investigation resulted in the release of another wrongfully convicted man after 22 years incarcerated.
Wicoff, now an appellate division chief with Harris County Public Defender’s Office, said while he has sympathy for anyone falsely imprisoned, he doesn’t consider the 10 drug-related exonerations in Harris County in the same mold as the DNA exonerees.
“I don’t count those as exonerations,” he said. “I mean they are in a sense. If someone’s protesting from the get-go that it’s not drugs, and ‘Why are you arresting me?’ and that sort of thing, then they’re ultimately vindicated, right? But in most of those cases, the person had every intent in the world to sell drugs or to possess drugs. It’s just that somebody had stiffed them along the way, and given them turkey dope.”
“It’s really not as compelling as someone who had been locked up in prison for 20 years and DNA testing proves what they’ve been saying all along, that they’re innocent.”
The delays at crime labs in Houston as well as elsewhere in Texas stem from a heavy load of pending drug charges handled by a system incapable of processing them immediately. In Texas, it’s first come, first serve, he said.
“I think most lawyers who practice in this area realize the inherent, maybe un-fix-ability to it,” he said. “I mean you can’t have drugs tested the next day. You just can’t.”
In terms of defining exonerations, the state doesn’t make a distinction between criminal intent or pure of heart. A person exonerated in Texas is eligible for $80,000 in compensation each year they were confined in prison. They can also request free state health insurance and free tuition at public universities.
And since 1992, the state has paid more than $60 million in compensation, according to the Texas comptroller’s office, although the recent string of wrongful convictions in Harris County drug cases had little to do with it. The highest payments went to those where DNA testing later proved their innocence in violent crimes decades earlier. Cornelius Dupree, an exoneree, was awarded $2.4 million, the largest payment under the state’s compensation guideline, after serving 30 years in jail.
Among the 10 drug-related exonereess in Harris County, only 33-year-old Sherri Frederick is listed as having received payment for time behind bars, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. She received $40,000 after serving six months in prison.
Below is a list of eight of the 10 exonerations blamed on the Houston crime lab’s delay in narcotics testing since 2009. In some cases, the person had a previous drug possession conviction and took a plea deal to avoid a harsher sentence.
- 17-year-old Mario Martin was arrested by Houston police in 2008 and charged with possession of cocaine. He served 30 days in jail. Two years later, the substance was tested.
- 45-year-old Queen Jordan, who had previous drug possession convictions, was arrested by Houston police in 2008 for cocaine possession. She served six months in jail. A year later, the substance was tested.
- 33-year-old Sherri Frederick was arrested after Houston police claimed she dropped a bag holding .27 grams of crack cocaine. Facing a maximum sentence due to previous drug possession convictions, she pled guilty four days later. Five months into a six-month sentence, the substance was finally tested; results were negative and she was released.
- 32-year-old Charlotte Brown was arrested by Houston police in 2010 for “white powder” that field tests indicated was cocaine. She pled guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison. She served a year before being released.
- 27-year-old Tobaris Robinson was arrested by Houston in 2011 on a cocaine possession charge. Robinson, who had prior convictions for felony and misdemeanor drug possession, accepted an offer from the Harris County District Attorney’s office and pled guilty. Four months later, she was exonerated and released.
- 25-year-old Rosa Batts was arrested by Houston police in July 2012 on an unspecified drug possession charge. Facing a maximum sentence of 25 years for previous convictions, Batts accepted a plea bargain and was sentenced to two years. Ten months later, the substance was tested and came back negative
- 34-year-old Hien Juan Mai was arrested by Houston police in 2011 after allegedly possessing trace amounts of cocaine. He was sentenced to 120 days in jail. A month after his conviction, he was released.
- 24-year-old Keith Coleman was arrested in 2006 and charged with possession of less than one gram of cocaine. Coleman, who also had previous drug possession convictions, pled guilty and was sentenced to eight months. In 2011, or nearly five years after he was released, the substance was finally tested.
The problem of delays at DPS-staffed crime laboratories isn’t unique to Harris County. In the past two years, at least five other people in Texas have been exonerated after first pleading guilty to a drug possession charge that a subsequent narcotics test nullified.
by Guest Author