A Looming Exoneration in Houston


A man in prison 22 years after being convicted of a rape and robbery looks to be innocent and will soon be released in the latest case of a probable wrongful conviction due to mistakes in the Houston crime lab:

A jury convicted Gary Alvin Richard in a 1987 attack on a nursing student in a trial based largely on blood-typing evidence from the Houston Police Department crime lab. But, prosecutors and the defense attorney agree, new tests completed Friday show that an HPD analyst misled jurors at Richard's trial and failed to report evidence that may have helped him.

Based on the new tests, both sides will ask a judge next week to release Richard on bond while they sort out what happened in his case.

"This is a new chapter, among many, of mistakes that were made, of sloppy work at the crime lab," said Bob Wicoff, Richard's lawyer. "Most troubling are the results that were not passed on to people who needed them."

Richard's case abounds with issues common to wrongful convictions. Among them:

The victim identified him some seven months after the attack. HPD crime lab analysts came to conflicting conclusions about the evidence, but reported only the results favorable to the case. Physical evidence collected in what is known as a "rape kit" has been destroyed, a victim of poor evidence preservation practices, leaving nothing for DNA testing now.

"The real crime is that another rape kit has been destroyed or discarded," Wicoff said. "The standards for preserving evidence were less stringent in 1987, but that is no excuse."

Without the rape kit, analysts at a California lab tested Richard's body fluids and drew conclusions that Wicoff said establish his innocence.

"He could not have been the source of the semen at the crime scene," Wicoff said.

Prosecutors have agreed that Richard should be released for the time being, but aren't yet conceding that he's innocent.

Richard's case is one of more than 400 reviewed after investigators found evidence of corruption, mishandled evidence, and general incompetence in the Houston crime lab. So far, at least three other people have been wrongly convicted because of mistakes by the people working in it.

Roger Koppl and I on how to reform the forensics system here.