A Deadly Twist at Houston's Crime Lab
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.
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."
Those who would be directed by Sharma were less blind to his faults, however. Because of his advanced degree, Sharma had initially been hired as a senior DNA analyst; among more junior analysts, he had quickly developed a reputation, according to the investigator, for an inability to perform the tests. His willingness to ask others to do the tests for him was also well known, as was his comfort in supervising these people from his more advanced position.
Once Sharma was officially named supervisor, it became only more natural to ask less-educated subordinates to perform work that was beneath him. Sharma liked the job. No aspect pleased him more than being called to court, on which days he got to wear a suit. Sharma enjoyed wearing suits and could never understand why members of his staff seemed not to enjoy testifying. He thought maybe they didn't like wearing suits.
Many expressed doubts to him, though, about the quality of their work. When one staff member remarked that the practice of transferring each case through numerous analysts might lead to the loss of information, "Dr. Sharma dismissed these concerns," Bromwich reported. Sharma merely informed his subordinate that the cases were transferred "according to the SOP." Some complained about standard operating procedures, but Sharma ultimately let them know that if it was SOP, it must be right.
He became a "widely disliked supervisor." His own superiors did not attempt to intervene until May 1995. Without any formal serology training himself, Sharma was training a new serologist when he "made a serious error." Trying to determine the presence of semen in a dried fluid stain, Sharma conducted no chemical test, as was SOP, but instead simply glanced through a microscope. No semen, he reported. Later, a fiber analyst noticed that the cloth had not been chemically tested and alerted Bolding, who had no choice but to order a new test. The results proved Sharma's conclusion to be utterly wrong — but only after the prosecutor had cut a deal with the accused based on the first result.
Bolding again had no choice but to lower Sharma's evaluation rating and to resume direct control of the DNA section. At least, this is what Bolding tried to do. Sharma, for his part, wouldn't stand for it. Soon after the promotion, Sharma had refused to recognize the authority of his less-educated boss and now resisted Bolding's attempts either to reprimand or supervise him. "Open and prolonged feuding" broke out between them, Bromwich reported. Donald Krueger, the "isolated and detached" director of the crime lab, stood by.
Another scandal was meanwhile growing within the DNA section, and eventually the media started quacking about a man who waited nine months in the Harris County jail before someone got around to testing his DNA. After the man was cleared, police chief Sam Nuchia ordered an investigation into how the DNA/serology section managed its cases, which internal audit found that there was little management oversight at all. Sharma, in short, was found incompetent, again, and it was just before this official conclusion was released that Krueger finally reached down, in August 1996, plucked Sharma out of DNA and put him in a new position.
Now, here's the most incredible part: After Sharma was ousted from the DNA section, after the police department's top brass undeniably knew how bad it was in there, everything got worse. The news cameras went away. Funding never improved. And Krueger began to think that maybe the DNA/serology section didn't really need a direct supervisor.
Thus, as DNA analysis became all the rage in other crime labs around the country, the DNA/serology section in Houston rotted into a sort of Dickensian sweatshop: undertrained, unsupervised analysts generating their "mistake-ridden and poorly documented casework" as rain poured in through a leaky roof, the "bloody water dripping out of the boxes containing the evidence and pooling on the floor."
With only Bolding to look in on the section from time to time, the same problems that plagued the serology department now took over the analysis of DNA. Bromwich found that analysts examined only evidence associated with a known suspect. Of this evidence, they tended to report "only those results that, from their perspective, were 'safe' in the sense that they were consistent with other evidence in the case or with the investigators' expectations." This was "accepted practice" within the section, Bromwich reported, and "when such selective reporting was coupled with the Crime Lab's systematic exaggeration of the statistical significance of [test] results," he went on, "a very significant risk of injustice was created."
Everything changed with the discovery of an actual injustice. In December 2002, reporters from KHOU began looking into the case of a man convicted of aggravated sexual assault. They discovered that a DNA analyst had both misinterpreted the results of her test and overstated their significance to a jury by about five orders of magnitude. As a result of their reports, Josiah Sutton was released after four years in prison, the DNA section was shut down and, ultimately, Bromwich was brought in.
The investigator seems to have been surprised when he arrived to find Baldev Sharma still on the premises. Krueger had named Sharma the lab's director of quality assurance/quality control, a decision that Bromwich had difficulty comprehending. "Because of Dr. Sharma's laziness and lack of professionalism, he was extremely unlikely to succeed in establishing an effective QA/QC program for the Crime Lab," the investigator wrote. Indeed, many Crime Lab employees reported seeing Sharma asleep on the job, "and they joked about videotaping him." In Bromwich's view, Sharma proved even less effective in quality control than he had been in the DNA/serology section. Even Sharma admitted that he only did about a year's worth of work in four-plus years on the job. And yet when Krueger demoted him from director of quality assurance, Sharma seems not to have understood. He appears to have thought job performance irrelevant, as long as you are a man of credentials.
From his new position as analyst of marijuana cases, Sharma felt justified in seeking a promotion. The job he sought was equivalent to Bolding's — the supervisor of numerous departments. When it was given to a man with less education, Sharma told his wife the "department politics" were unbearable. Sometime in 2005, he decided to retire.
Perveem Sharma continued commuting then to her job in the department of public works, while Baldev Sharma passed his time jogging and taking courses in tax preparation. He had a dream of opening his own tax-preparation shop, but as Perveem Sharma said, "dreams are not always fulfilled."
Every night, Baldev Sharma waited for his wife to come home, and on October 10, 2007, as they did nearly every night, they went to eat dinner together at a small Indian restaurant on Scarsdale called Darbar. Perveem Sharma was going out of town the next day to visit relatives, and over the meal, Baldev Sharma complained that five days was really too long for a wife to be away from her husband. Afterward, Perveem Sharma remembered that there was no milk in the refrigerator at home. She didn't want to leave her husband without milk, and so asked him to drive a block down the road to Food Town.
Baldev Sharma dropped his wife at the door and went, according to custom, to wait with the car. While inside, Perveem Sharma remembered other items and was gone longer than she expected. Otherwise, everything went as usual until she emerged from the store and couldn't find her husband. She looked around; she called his cell phone. When he didn't answer, she got nervous. Her husband often parked to the side of the building, away from people who might damage their car. In that direction now, though, there were only a lot of vehicles with flashing lights. Perveem Sharma finally began walking toward them.
She was told in the glare that her husband had been carjacked. Their five-year-old Nissan would later be spotted in the robbery of a McDonald's and then found ablaze in a city park. Baldev Sharma, though, had never left. He lay on the asphalt, shot through the heart.
News accounts speak of screaming at the scene. Perveem Sharma told of the void she felt later, gazing at pictures of a husband who wasn't there. "He was a very nice, gentle man," she said. "He never fought with anyone." She dwells on what was taken from her and on the person who took it. "Who ruined my life," Perveem Sharma said, starkly, "they should be caught and punished."
The case remains open. Sheriff's deputies have no suspect — only the killer's DNA. They won't tell where they found it — whether from a cigarette butt, a dropped hair, a disposable cup — but Baldev Sharma's murderer may as well have signed his name. His widow will have her vengeance someday — with a little luck, that is, and providing that DNA analysts do their jobs.
Anyone with information regarding the murder of Baldev Sharma is encouraged to call Crime Stoppers at 713-222-8477.
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