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MATTHEW SHAER – The False Promise of DNA Testing

ne evening in november of 2002, Carol Batie was sitting on her living-room couch in Houston, flipping through channels on the television, when she happened to catch a teaser for an upcoming news segment on KHOU 11, the local CBS affiliate. She leapt to her feet. “I scared the kids, I was screaming so loud,” Batie told me recently. “I said, ‘Thank you, God!’ I knew that all these years later, my prayers had been answered.”

The subject of the segment was the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory, among the largest public forensic centers in Texas. By one estimate, the lab handled DNA evidence from at least 500 cases a year—mostly rapes and murders, but occasionally burglaries and armed robberies. Acting on a tip from a whistle-blower, KHOU 11 had obtained dozens of DNA profiles processed by the lab and sent them to independent experts for analysis. The results, William Thompson, an attorney and a criminology professor at the University of California at Irvine, told a KHOU 11 reporter, were terrifying: It appeared that Houston police technicians were routinely misinterpreting even the most basic samples.

“If this is incompetence, it’s gross incompetence … and repeated gross incompetence,” Thompson said. “You have to wonder if [the techs] could really be that stupid.”

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