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Scores of Cases Affected by Houston Lab Technician

Scores of pending criminal cases and past convictions could be in jeopardy in the wake of revelations that a former Houston Police crime lab technician resigned after an internal investigation found evidence of lying, improper procedure and tampering with an official record.

Former DNA lab technician Peter Lentz worked on 185 criminal cases, including 51 murders or capital murders, according to letters sent out by the Harris County District Attorney's Office and obtained by the Houston Chronicle through an open records request.

"It's a mess," said Gerald Bourque, an attorney who has several cases in which Lentz tested the DNA evidence, including two capital murder cases, one of which went to trial earlier this year. "If you're not following protocol, there's potential for contamination, transference, all kinds of stuff."

This is the latest in a series of problems to surface in recent months at HPD. A city-commissioned study showed the department failed to investigate 20,000 crimes with workable leads.

Earlier this year, Harris County prosecutors identified nearly two dozen criminal cases that could be in jeopardy after they linked them to a Houston homicide detective fired for lying and conducting shoddy investigations.

The disclosure about the technician's resignation comes as control of the perennially troubled lab was transferred in April from HPD to a civilian-led board of directors.

Testing suspended

In 2002, forensic testing at the lab was temporarily suspended because of a number of serious management, employee and structural problems, including a leaky roof that for years dripped water on stored evidence. There was also a backlog of untested rape kits, which at one point totalled 6,600, and persisted until August 2013 when the work was outsourced.

HPD spokesman Victor Senties said Lentz worked for the lab from January 2012 until he resigned in March 2014. He said the department investigated Lentz and forwarded the findings to the district attorney's office. He said the department would not release any further information about the allegations against Lentz or comment on the situation.

Lentz could not be reached for comment.

The district attorney's office in April and May sent notices to alert defendants and their attorneys that Lentz falsified a worksheet, failed to recalibrate a machine and was untruthful. A Harris County grand jury investigated the technician for tampering with a government record but did not indict him on any charge, according to the letter.

By law, prosecutors have to disclose evidence that could be helpful to the defense.

Because the department would not answer questions about the investigation, the allegations remain unclear. The problem appears to have arisen over one case, but the technician's fingerprints are on dozens of others, leading defense attorneys to ask how their cases may be affected.

One of those defense attorneys, Bourque, scheduled a hearing Thursday on the issue. He is expected to question prosecutors about whether there are other cases in which protocol was not followed and about other possible problems with the technician and the lab.

Bourque questions whether anything Lentz touched can be used as evidence, even if it is retested.

"I don't know how they can rely on anything," Bourque said. "If you can't eliminate that there may have been contamination or transfer, what difference does it make if you retest it?"

Assistant Harris County District Attorney Jennifer Falk, who has two capital murder cases that are affected by the allegations including Bourque's, said the office is looking at all of the technician's cases and retesting anything it has doubts about.

"If the evidence has been tainted to such a degree that we don't have confidence in it, then of course we're not going to use it," Falk said.

But, she said, she expects most of the issues with the DNA samples can be remedied by retesting.

Civilian oversight

Last year, Mayor Annise Parker received City Council backing to transfer management of the scandal-plagued lab from HPD to a government corporation -- a nine-member independently appointed board -- and make a forensic scientist the executive director.

Control of the lab was transferred to Houston Forensic Science LGC on April 3. The lab employs 85 civilian lab workers and 48 HPD officers and still operates on the upper floors of the downtown HPD headquarters.

Chairman Scott Hochberg credited HPD with finding Lentz's mistake before the management of the lab was transferred to Houston Forensic LGC.

"It was caught by the normal process of full technical review, which every test now goes through," Hochberg said. He said the board was briefed earlier this month that the allegations involved one control sample in one case and was caught by a routine check.

James Pinkerton contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 - Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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