Life for Josiah Sutton when he left prison was as uncertain as the evidence that convicted him. Sutton spent the heart of his teenage life in prison for a rape he didn't commit after the culmination of sloppy lab work and negligence by the Houston Police Department (HPD) Crime Laboratory and his defense team.

Sutton easily could have been exonerated with a simple DNA test of an evidence sample. Four years after his conviction, he finally was. At age 21, Sutton walked out of prison in 2003.

Even then, Sutton didn't go back to a normal life. When he was first released from prison, he slept with objects against his bedroom door to keep intruders out. He saved all his receipts so if he's arrested again he can prove his whereabouts.

The Sutton case was one of more than 3,500 cases processed by the HPD Crime Lab dating back to 1980 that were reviewed by independent investigators after major problems were exposed in late 2002.

The reviews found hundreds of cases where incompetence, inadequate training and resources, lack of guidance and even intentional bias on the part of a crime lab - which is not independent from the HPD - contributed to mistakes.

"It's really a complicated issue not just for this crime lab. With this crime lab, almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong," said Marie Munier, chief of the Public Service Bureau with the Harris County District Attorney's Office, which prosecuted Sutton and others whose cases are still being examined to determine the extent of mistakes and whether they led to wrongful convictions.

Some problems with the HPD Crime Lab - underfunding, poor staff training and close ties to police and prosecutors - also may be inherent in crime labs across the country, which could contribute to sloppy or even biased work.

A 2004 investigation by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found 23 DNA testing errors in serious criminal cases handled in a Washington state lab. In North Carolina, the Winston-Salem Journal recently ran a series of articles about many DNA testing errors by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. In Virginia, it took an outside investigation to clear Earl Washington Jr., who was falsely convicted of capital murder and nearly executed. An independent lab used the same samples used in his conviction but found contradicting results.

That's not all. DNA testing errors are cropping up nationwide: California, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Nevada have documented major problems recently.

Munier agreed the troubles are widespread. These issues have prompted critics to call for greater independence among the nation's crime labs, which typically are run by law enforcement agencies.

In Houston, chronic problems with forensic evidence produced by the crime lab resulted in new independent oversight and accreditation of the facility, as well as increased investment in staff salaries, equipment and training.

"One of the most critical parts of a lab is to have outside scrutiny, and that was not occurring," said Irma Rios, the new director of the Houston lab. The facility now undergoes external and internal audits; proficiency testing and competency testing of the examiners; retesting of completed cases; blind sample testing; testimony monitoring, and internal and external training.

In addition, the lab installed cameras and limited access to personnel with card readers. "We're implementing a laboratory information system where there's a lot of traceability of people," Rios said. "Those are some of the things we've done to increase the monitoring."

The Problems

In late 2002, television station KHOU in Houston looked into deficiencies of the HPD Crime Lab and asked University of California, Irvine professor and forensic expert William Thompson to investigate.

"The problems were just obvious," Thompson said. "They weren't running proper scientific controls. They were giving

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor