City of Houston Sued; Disgraced Crime Lab on Trial After Wrongfully Convicted Man Exonerated After 17 Years in Prison
By: Houston Criminal Defense Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
George Rodriquez was a 26-year-old young man in 1987 when he was convicted of raping a 14-year-old girl in Harris County. A critical piece of evidence that led to his conviction was a pubic hair found in the girl’s underwear. A serologist with the Houston City Police Department’s crime lab, who we now know had a history of fabricating evidence to suit local prosecutorial and law enforcement needs, determined that the hair did not belong to a suspect named Isidro Yanez but the serologist did not eliminate Rodriquez as the owner of the hair. Seventeen years later DNA, which was not used as evidence in criminal trials in 1987, established that the hair in fact belonged to Yanez and not to Rodriquez.
At age 43 Rodriquez was released from the Texas prison system to be embraced by three daughters who had grown up while he was wrongfully imprisoned. He was able to visit the grave site of his deceased father who had not survived long enough to see his son vindicated. It was indeed a hard 17-year ordeal. There is no comfort for innocent men in prison—not even from their fellow inmates, especially if they have been convicted a sex offense against a child. The “sex offender” stigma places these individuals at the bottom of the prison subculture. The only real support they have are family members who refuse to accept the validity of the “criminal conviction” imposed upon their loved one.
It’s now payback time. George Rodriquez is now appearing before a local federal court where his attorney Barry Scheck, co-director of New York’s Cardozo School of Law’s Innocence Project, is demanding that the City of Houston to pay his client “tens of millions” of dollars in damages for the 1987 wrongful conviction. In his opening statement in U.S. District Court Judge Vanessa Gilmore’s courtroom, Scheck told jurors: “We will prove a false and misleading serology report violated [Rodriquez’s] constitutional right to a fair trial.”
Scheck announced his intention to call former Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes and former Houston Police Chief Lee Brown as witnesses. Attorney Robert Cambrice, who is representing the City of Houston, did spare the rod of accountability for Holmes or Rodriquez’s defense attorney. The Houston Chronicle reported (June 17, 2009) that Cambrice laid the blame for Rodriquez’s wrongful conviction “on bad lawyering by the prosecutor and Rodriquez’s late defense attorney that led to the false conviction, not an unquestioned lie by a city employee.”
“No city policy-makers approved of unconstitutional fabrication of evidence,” Cambrice informed jurors.
While the city’s attorney has a difficult task before him, his defense theory widely misses the mark. The Houston “crime lab” was funded by the city. The crime lab technician was an employee of the Houston Police Department, a city agency. The city should be held liable for the actions of its employees who engage in unlawful conduct. The technician who conducted a forensic examination of the pubic hair deliberately misrepresented the fact that the hair did not belong to Yanez but could have belonged to Rodriquez. That false and misleading “expert” conclusion was a major contributing factor in Rodriquez being wrongfully convicted.
The best message the federal jurors could send to the Harris County criminal justice system is that it will have to pay millions of dollars when it wrongfully convicts innocent people, either by deliberate fabrication of false evidence or official neglect in improperly testing any forensic evidence. A wrongful conviction under any circumstance is not a “mistake.” It is a life-altering travesty of justice.
The State of Texas leads the nation in wrongful convictions. To our knowledge, there has not been a single prosecutor, forensic expert, or law enforcement official involved in the deliberate fabrication of evidence associated with a significant number of the state’s nearly forty DNA exonerations who were indicted, prosecuted, and sent to prison. It is a crime to convicted innocent people based on fabricated evidence, perjured testimony, or suppressed exculpatory evidence. But it is a crime that has no official accountability in the State of Texas.
On June 16, 2009, the National Geographic Channel aired a program about the Louisiana prison system. The program featured two inmates who claimed they are innocent. One stands convicted of murder, the other rape. The convicted rapist, who had served twenty years in prison, appeared before the Louisiana Parole Board. Prior to the inmate’s presentation, one of the two victims (two sisters who have been raped by a black man when they were teenagers) told board members that she no longer “trusts black men.” The panel chairman promptly told the victim that she could rest assured the board would do “its duty”—a clear indication that it would not parole the rapist.
Then came the inmate’s turn to make his presentation to the board. He had accumulated an array of impressive documents supporting his claim of innocence. He showed the members a medical examination report that revealed the second victim was still “a virgin” who had not had any sexual contact. This report had not been made available to his defense attorney at trial. He showed the board a photo of his lineup array during which he was identified by the victims. The convicted rapist was the only person in the lineup who was handcuffed. He also showed the board a police report in which one of the victims, who had identified him, stated that “all black people looked alike” to her.
When the inmate left the parole board room, the panel members were blatantly dismissive of his claims of innocence. “He’s guilty,” one said. “Of course, he is – he did it,” another chimed in. Their official attitude reflects just how little consideration is given to claims of innocence by imprisoned inmates, especially in sex offense cases. In fact, inmates appearing before state parole boards, as a rule, must admit their guilt as an acceptance of responsibility in order to even be considered for parole. The failure to admit guilt is a constitutionally permissible reason for summarily denying parole consideration to an inmate.
We don’t know if the Louisiana rapist in the National Geographic program is actually innocent, but we do know that there are thousands of wrongfully convicted innocent people among the ranks of the nation’s nearly two-million inmate population—some of whom are among the nation’s approximately 3100 death row inmates. The need for “law and order” and the demand for “public safety” can never justify a criminal justice system that does not hold accountable those involved in the wrongful conviction of innocent people.
As the Louisiana Parole Board assured the rape victim that it would do “its duty” by denying parole to her alleged attacker, it is time for the federal jurors hearing the George Rodriquez case to do “their duty” and hold the City of Houston accountable for his wrongful conviction.
By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair