A Deadly Twist at Houston's Crime Lab

When DNA is the only evidence, a good analyst is especially important

After the death of Baldev Sharma, his widow, trying to get used to living alone, shoved all of his pictures away in drawers. A year later, Perveem Sharma pulled them out again. Now here they were, laid out on the dining-room table around the artificial flowers.

The photos displayed several generations of an Indian family against an American tract home. The family appeared in different poses, at different times, but always to the side of the frame, dressed more formally than everyone else and smiling the same expressionless smile, was a graying, slightly stooped figure of about 70. This man Perveem Sharma identified as her husband, Baldev, and made clear that he had been no ordinary man but "a very highly educated Ph.D." Baldev Sharma had held a doctorate in organic chemistry from Delhi University. Perveem Sharma, who has an identical doctorate, admitted they were both deeply proud of their educations. "Ph.D," she said, "is the highest degree one can have."

When they met, 45 years ago in a pharmacology lab in Delhi, Baldev Sharma had impressed his future wife as handsome, diligent and responsible. Above all, she had seen him as a man with a future, and in this respect, she believes he never let her down. After marrying, they had two children together, and Baldev Sharma always tried to "move forward" in what he could provide for his family. It seems to have been this ambition that, in the 1980s, brought them to Houston.

Perveem Sharma began testing drinking water for Houston's department of public works; Baldev Sharma took a job examining DNA for the Houston Police Department Crime Lab.

"That also he was proud of," Perveem Sharma explained, and she was proud of him, too, especially after he began supervising the DNA section. She considered her husband both knowledgeable and accomplished — a fine scientist. Together, they bought this house in Clear Lake and put their children through college. The Sharmas went to work every day, and Perveem Sharma continued to believe in her husband as a scientist, even after he began experiencing trouble on the job, even after the crime lab collapsed in a world-famous scandal, with her husband at the very ­center.
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What happened inside Houston's crime lab remained largely unknown until reporters began showing up and Houston City Council, in March 2005, was obligated to authorize a comprehensive, independent investigation. Michael Bromwich, a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice, spent two years at his task and last year posted his 400-page final report on the Web. The failure of the crime lab, he concluded, was mainly caused by inept leadership and a lack of financial support.

"Starved for resources," the lab couldn't offer competitive pay for its jobs. Less-than-qualified people tended to apply, and those who were hired discovered that money to educate them was scarce. The staff, as a result, was "woefully undertrained," and perhaps the most deficient among them was the man who hired Baldev Sharma, Ph.D.

James Bolding sometimes boasted of holding a doctorate, but the investigator found that he had none, nor any training in serology when, years earlier, he had come to work in the serology department. Within Bolding's first year, his supervisor died, leaving Bolding in charge. Over the many years that Bolding remained in charge, the serology department became marked, according to Bromwich, by a "disregard for scientific integrity." Analysts beneath Bolding often neglected to test evidence that was presented to them; the tests they did perform were "generally unreliable." They misinterpreted, misrecorded, misreported the results. The investigator even found a case in which Bolding seemed to have committed "outright scientific fraud and perjury."

And yet, as indifferent as he was to the mission of his unit, Bolding enjoyed supervising it and was apparently trying to enlarge his kingdom when, in the late 1980s, he requested permission to add to his section the capability of examining DNA. DNA analysis was then assuming importance in forensic-science circles around the country, but in Houston's crime lab, only Bolding was interested. No one in the police department noticed anything awry with him, and no one objected to his plan, as long as he secured funding through grants.

Sharma was among the first DNA analysts Bolding employed, and you can imagine the sense of triumph that greeted Sharma's arrival in 1989 — and the air of authority as the highly educated man sat down to his work. Perhaps you can also imagine the surprise of his colleagues as Sharma began struggling with even the most basic functions of the job. Restriction fragment length polymorphism seemed to baffle him; his bands were weak and diffuse. He could not even begin to perform polymerase chain reaction testing; he had never learned how. As Bromwich later discovered, Sharma was indeed highly educated, but he had the wrong education for the job — "no experience in forensic science and only a basic theoretical knowledge of molecular biology." The investigator could only conclude that Baldev Sharma was "technically incompetent."

Another man might have sensed his shortcomings and quit, but Sharma seems to have been inoculated against feelings of inadequacy by his degree. And certainly there was no one to fire him. Bolding "almost surely lacked the competence" to recognize problems in the DNA section, according to the investigator. Indeed, Bolding's point of view was much like Sharma's: any education is better than none. Thus, in 1993, when Bolding was elevated to oversee a larger portion of the lab, he chose Sharma to replace him as DNA director, unable to think of anyone more "appropriately credentialed."

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