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Last year, it was discovered that a scientist who worked at the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) crime lab potentially falsified hundreds of case results. The Texas Forensic Science Commission (FSC) has released new details about the incident and potential fallout. Ultimately, hundreds of convictions in 36 counties could be overturned due to the falsified results.
Jonathon Salvador was a controlled substances analyst at the DPS crime lab in Houston. Commissioner Sarah Kerrigan, head of the FSC investigation, reported that Salvador was not a particularly competent employee. His termination occurred when it was discovered that he was reporting results without actually testing substances. Salvador was simply using data from completed tests for untested pills. The incident was immediately reported to the FSC. DPS tested three months worth of cases that Salvador was in charge of. They found four incidents that had incorrect testing or labeling. Investigators can only speculate on how often Salvador mislabeled or falsified test results.
Salvador was considered by many colleagues as a good team-member. Unfortunately, his skills as an analyst were lacking, and he decided to cut corners. Since 2005, he reported results on 4,944 tests involving criminal cases. Kerrigan stated that his work showed consistently poor documentation, decision making and technique. He appeared to struggle with his workload and the basic science behind the methodology of testing.
When FSC investigators probed further into the case, they found that managers and peers thought that Salvador’s performance was marginal and of low quality. His superiors found errors in his test results more frequently than in his colleagues’ test results. Due to chronically high caseloads, this type of under-performance was tolerated. Peers reported that Salvador often asked for help. In the months leading up to his termination, he had stopped asking for help. Fellow lab-workers speculated that he was beginning to fear that his superiors would question his competence.
Salvador’s termination has brought attention to the issue of under-performance in DPS employees. DPS officials have stated that they have implemented an evaluation system that is much more rigorous that previous systems. Employees who are chronically under-performing will likely face termination. The evaluations with take place every two months for the first year. They also report that additional training will be required for lab workers before they begin working on cases by themselves. The DPS crime lab is also facing budget cuts at this time.
It remains to be seen what will happen to all of the defendants in cases that Salvador worked on. What happens to the cases that can’t be retested? What if evidence has been destroyed? Will defendants be entitled to habeas relief? There is the possibility that hundreds of cases could be overturned. Evidence kept at the Department of Public Safety can certainly be retested. Unfortunately, many smaller counties have already destroyed evidence from drug-related convictions. Kerrigan estimated that there may be no evidence to retest in 25-50% of the cases Salvador was involved with. A public defender in Harris County has pledged to process any viable habeas writs. There is no word yet on how many of the counties will respond with the recent information.
The above article was written by guest blogger Jenna Wilson, for the Law Offices of Michael J. Brennan. Any information in the article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Law Office of Shahin Zamir.