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Forensic Science Commission Reviews DPS Lab Trouble

The Texas Forensic Science Commission has concluded that the potential reversal of thousands of drug convictions by the Court of Criminal Appeals is due to a DPS employee's incompetence, but that not all of the drug samples are necessarily compromised.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
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A report adopted on Friday by the Texas Forensic Science Commission concludes that the potential reversal of thousands of drug convictions by the Court of Criminal Appeals was due to the incompetence of a Department of Public Safety crime lab employee. Members of the commission said it’s unclear whether every conviction connected to the employee’s work has been scientifically compromised. 

At a commission meeting on Friday, the members discussed whether their findings regarding a DPS crime lab worker who replaced the results of one test with another mean that all of the drug samples that passed through his hands are now compromised. They also found that interviews with colleagues supported the conclusion that the employee "struggled with corrections and an overall understanding of the chemistry, especially in difficult cases."

The Court of Criminal Appeals has reversed more than 10 convictions due to the mistakes of the DPS Houston crime lab worker, Jonathan Salvador, who left the department last year. In the reversal of the conviction of Junius Sereal, from Galveston County, the judges wrote that all of the cases Salvador touched could be jeopardized.

“While there is evidence remaining that is available to retest in this case, that evidence was in the custody of the lab technician in question,” according to the judicial opinion. “This Court believes his actions are not reliable therefore custody was compromised, resulting in a due process violation.”

“This one analyst handled thousands of cases in the Houston area, and due to the breadth of the opinion, they may all be jeopardized,” the Texas District and County Attorneys Association wrote in a letter to its members.

But Sarah Kerrigan, a member of the commission and the chairwoman of the forensic science department at Sam Houston State University, said “there aren’t systematic issues we’re aware of with property control,” and that in some of the cases, there may be other drug evidence left that was uncorrupted by Salvador.

Jeff Blackburn, a lawyer with the Innocence Project of Texas, told the commission that the court is applying the same opinion to all of the cases involving Salvador simply as a practical matter. The Court of Criminal Appeals, he said, cannot possibly look at every single case connected to Salvador’s testing along with their normal work and so they are indicating that they will always rule in favor of the defendant in these cases. “I think it’s the numbers and judicial economy,” he said.

Part of the problem, Blackburn added, is that Texas has no centralized public defender system, so each county handles the problematic convictions differently. “We have to go piecemeal,” he said, “but we’re doing the best with what we’ve got.”

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 the falsification of results in a controlled substance test. Salvador had worked on 4,900 drug cases in 30 counties since he took the job in 2006, DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said, adding that a Harris County grand jury chose not to indict Salvador.

After the discovery, Vinger said, “the department implemented more stringent quality control measures to help prevent similar issues in the future.”

In its report, the commission found that other workers in the lab described Salvador as quick to correct his mistakes when they were pointed out. His work, they found, was “’right on the edge of acceptability,” but his supervisors “made good faith efforts to help Salvador improve” because his “attitude was always so positive.”

“Salvador’s easygoing and collegial demeanor contributed to management’s reluctance to more aggressively discipline or dismiss him” before the incident where he replaced the results of one test with another, which the commission called “professional misconduct.”

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Courts Criminal justice Texas Court Of Criminal Appeals