Crime Lab Delays In Texas Sparking Bogus Drug Convictions

By McCarton Ackerman 04/22/14

A lack of rapid, competent forensic labs and a dearth of public resources has caused another black eye for justice in Texas.

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More than 21 people across Texas have served time in jail on drug possession charges when they weren’t carrying an illegal substance, all due to lengthy crime lab delays which resulted in convictions before the public lab results on the samples could be sent back.

A report from the Austin-American Statesman found that 14 men and seven women pleaded guilty and began serving time before the results came back. In many cases, the lab results were sent back months or even years later due to lab backups or delays. It’s also likely there are many other similar cases which have yet to be identified.

"We all — prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, defendants — depend on rapid, competent forensic labs. But we have not had those in Texas for more than three decades," said Patrick McCann, a Harris County public defender. McCann represented Mario Martin in May 2008, who was ultimately convicted of possession of cocaine. His crime lab results came back negative in February 2010, far too late to overturn the six months he had already spent in prison.

The false-positive drug tests in the new report date back to 2005, but 14 people wrongly convicted in the state were belatedly exonerated in just the last two years. Department of Public Safety spokesperson Tom Vinger said the delays were due to a surge in blood alcohol tests and a shortage of staff. Last year, the state legislature authorized funding for 11 more lab technicians and implemented a new policy that limits testing in misdemeanor cases.

Inger Hampton, assistant district attorney in charge of Harris County's Conviction Review Section, said the top priority for now is addressing the more than 2,500 “pending or active cases” in the Houston lab.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.