Chief Shakes Up Houston P.D. Crime Lab


By Roma Khanna And Steve Mcvicker, The Houston Chronicle

Houston, Tex. Police Chief C.O. Bradford cleaned house at the department's crime lab Thursday, recommending two top officials be fired and seven others disciplined, holding them responsible for problems that have raised questions about the evidence used to win hundreds of convictions.

Assistant Chief Milton C. Simmons and DNA division supervisor James Bolding resigned Wednesday rather than be fired. The director of the crime lab retired in February after the exposure of widespread problems there, but Bradford also recommended he be fired.

Simmons and Bolding could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The head of the crime lab's ballistics division, which has also faced questions about the quality and accuracy of its work, was suspended along with five other analysts in the DNA division.

Bradford described the disciplinary action as "very difficult but necessary to bring accountability" to the crime lab, where DNA testing was suspended after an audit uncovered shoddy science, an undertrained staff and conditions ripe for contamination.

Meanwhile, a union spokesman said the house cleaning did not go far enough.

"The punishment should have gone all the way to the top," said Hans Marticiuc, noting that some of Bradford's reasons for the discipline also apply to the chief himself.

Bradford recommended Simmons be fired because of, among other things, his "failure to act on several crime lab issues brought to his attention."

In March, Bradford told the Chronicle, through a spokesman, that he knew the roof over the crime lab leaked for more than five years, adding "there is always a concern about evidence contamination when you have a structural problem." Yet, for years, Bradford did nothing to permanently fix the roof.

Marticiuc also pointed to Bradford's role in the internal investigation that led to the punishment announced Thursday. The investigators asked Bradford a number of questions, which he answered in a letter that was reviewed by a lawyer, Marticuic said. The union spokesman called such participation "unprecedented."

Robert Hurst, a department spokesman, said the chief "was involved in the (internal) investigation" but refused to elaborate.

The recommended discipline cites violations ranging from failure to oversee the lab and follow accepted guidelines for forensic work to individual errors on cases, including capital murders. The discipline fell heaviest on the supervisors, who Bradford said set up improper procedures that their subordinates followed.

Among the cited employees and their violations:

· Regina Ortiz-Boyd was a DNA analyst until she left the lab in 1999. She inadvertently deleted all of the information from an analysis in a sexual assault case.

· Robert Baldwin is head of the lab's ballistics division. He failed to complete inspections of his area and equipment and did not do paperwork about his division. Bradford said these failures were the only reason Baldwin was suspended for seven days, though questions have been raised about the quality of his work. The Chronicle reported that Baldwin misidentified a bullet from a capital murder case and used unsound methods -- shooting a gun 25 times to obtain a ballistics match -- in another capital case.

· Christi Kim is a DNA analyst who tested the DNA used to convict Josiah Sutton of a 1998 rape. Sutton has been released from prison on bond after new DNA tests discredited Kim's. Police investigators cited her for incorrectly documenting the results of DNA profiles, failing to report the full set of DNA results in an unnamed case and making an incorrect data entry in an unnamed capital murder case.

· Joseph Chu is a DNA analyst who incorrectly documented results in two sexual assault cases and incorrectly reported statistics in a capital murder case. Houston police would not say what capital murder case, but the Chronicle reported in May that Chu analyzed the DNA evidence used against Jorge Villanueva, a death row inmate whose conviction has been questioned because of unsound lab techniques.

The chairman of the state legislative committee that has been conducting its own investigation of the crime lab on Thursday praised Bradford's action.

"I'm very glad to see that after seven years, some action has been taken to correct the problems that are going on with the Houston Police Department crime lab," said state Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, referring to a 1996 audit of the lab that was supposed to address some of the problems.

"I hope that from here on out the Police Department works diligently to make corrections, hire the proper people, and get the crime lab back up and working and instill confidence in the citizens of Texas."

While the discipline marks the end of the department's major probe into problems at the lab, questions remain about its future, and other investigations continue.

Bradford said he has not decided whether he will reopen the DNA division of the crime lab. He is awaiting the final report from the National Forensic Science Technology Center that will outline what steps HPD must take to get its lab accredited for lab quality. HPD is the largest police department in the county without an accredited crime lab. The center is expected to complete its report in two months.

The Harris County District Attorney's Office also continues its review of more than 1,300 cases in which DNA was analyzed by the lab. Prosecutors have ordered the retesting of DNA in more than 200 cases. Retests have been completed in 22 cases, supporting initial findings in 18 and disagreeing or inconclusive in four.

Meanwhile, two Harris County grand juries are exploring whether criminal charges should be brought over the problems that began with the crime lab but have had far-reaching implications at all levels of the Harris County justice system.


DISCIPLINARY ACTION TAKEN:

Milton C. Simmons, assistant chief --
Indefinite suspension (submitted retirement paperwork on June 11)

Donald Krueger, crime lab director --
Indefinite suspension (submitted retirement paperwork on Feb. 23)

James Bolding, DNA section supervisor --
Indefinite suspension (submitted retirement paperwork on June 11)

Robert Bobzean, assistant chemist/ toxicologist --
7-day suspension

Pauline Louie, criminalist IV --
7-day suspension

Regina Ortiz-Boyd, criminalist I --
Indefinite suspension (resigned June 10, 1999)

Robert Baldwin, criminalist IV --
7-day suspension

Christi Kim, criminalist II --
14-day suspension

Joseph Chu, criminalist II --
14-day suspension

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