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After Drug Lab Scandal, Court Continues to Reverse Convictions

The Court of Criminal Appeals continued to reverse more convictions of drug offenders on Wednesday after a former employee with a DPS crime laboratory in Houston may have fabricated the results of thousands of drug tests.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
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Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the reversal of a sentence handed down by the Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday.

The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction of Ricky Eugene Jackson of Galveston on Wednesday, the latest in a string of overturned guilty verdicts after investigators from the Texas Forensic Science Commission found that a former employee with a Department of Public Safety crime lab in Houston may have fabricated the results of thousands of drug tests.

District attorneys from the 30 counties affected by the tests have responded in different ways to the news. Galveston County, which has appointed defense attorneys for the 26 people imprisoned based on the employee’s testing, has already seen the dismissal of numerous convictions.

Jackson was serving an eight-year sentence, beginning in 2010, for cocaine possession.

Among the reversed sentences, Junius Sereal's was the longest. In early March he had his 32-year sentence for the possession of a controlled substance reversed by the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’ highest criminal court. “The lab technician who was solely responsible for testing the evidence in this case is the scientist found to have committed misconduct,” according to the opinion

The Galveston County district attorney’s office confirmed that Sereal has been brought back to the county jail and will be released soon.

The DPS employee responsible for the misconduct, Jonathan Salvador, has been the subject of an investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. At the commission's last meeting in January, Nizam Peerwani, a member of the committee and the chief medical examiner for Tarrant County, said that Salvador was part of an office culture that “tolerated under-performance.” Commissioner Sarah Kerrigan said that after multiple interviews with Salvador’s colleagues, the commission concluded that his work was “marginal” and of “low quality.” 

Salvador, who could not be reached for comment, was suspended from his duties as a forensic scientist with DPS in February 2012, when the department discovered problems with his work, including the falsification of results in numerous cases involving marijuana, cocaine, heroine, pharmaceuticals and other controlled substances. Salvador had worked on 4,900 drug cases in 30 counties since he took the job in 2006, DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said.

After an internal investigation by DPS and the Texas Rangers, Salvador was brought before a Harris County grand jury in May 2012, which chose not to indict him. In August, he resigned from DPS.

“The department implemented more stringent quality control measures to help prevent similar issues in the future,” Vinger said, adding that the department continues “to provide assistance in cases worked by this former employee, including re-examining evidence when requested.”

DPS Laboratory Manager Keith Gibson also sent a letter to district attorneys around the state with a list of nearly 5,000 convictions that could've been affected by Salvador’s work.

When Sereal’s case was reversed by the high court in early March, the Texas District and County Attorneys Association wrote to its members, “This one analyst handled thousands of cases in the Houston area, and due to the breadth of the opinion, they may all be jeopardized.”

Each district attorney may handle the situation as he or she chooses. Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healy told the Houston Chronicle that he was waiting for retesting of cases by DPS before alerting defendants and their lawyers. 

Jack Roady, the district attorney in Galveston County, said he looked at each case and dismissed every one in which evidence had been destroyed or possibly “tainted by Salvador’s involvement.” Of the 700 convictions in this category, he said he focused on the 26 cases in which the defendant was still in prison.

In Harris County, Sara Kinney, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said all pending cases connected to Salvador’s work were dismissed. “Now we will just review, case by case, any writ we get as a result of that problem,” she said.

Bob Wicoff, who heads the appellate division of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, said that his staff is beginning to file appeals, “armed with the Galveston cases,” for some of the more than 400 Harris County cases that involved Salvador’s work. He said that just four Houston defendants whose cases were handled by Salvador remain in prison; Harris County was less affected because it relies on a range of labs, not just the one where Salvador worked. 

Last December, a Massachusetts crime lab chemist named Annie Dookhan was indicted on federal charges over allegations she mishandled evidence in more than 30,000 cases throughout her career. Nearly 300 drug defendants have been released from prison as a result of her work, according to The Boston Globe. In September 2012, Massachusetts lawmakers began a legislative inquiry to determine how to prevent similar problems from occurring again. 

It remains to be seen whether Texas lawmakers will consider a similar course of action. And though the district attorneys association noted to its members that “the Legislature perhaps needs to increase crime lab funding so that two analysts can work each case rather than one,” there has not been a push by lawmakers yet to increase the number of analysts employed by DPS labs.

In a list of requested funding items for the 2014-15 biennium, DPS asked for additional funds to improve facilities and hire 11 forensic scientists to analyze blood alcohol and controlled substance cases. They did not specify at which labs these analysts would be hired. 

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Courts Criminal justice Department of Public Safety Texas Court Of Criminal Appeals