The Houston Forensic Science Center announced Tuesday morning that it had booted Officer Justin McGhee from crime scene investigations and he has been transferred to a patrol position. Thanks to his oversights, the Harris County District Attorney's Office is now notifying the defense lawyers in every case affected, just in case the paperwork omissions or inconsistencies and the misplacement of some physical evidence might affect the outcomes of the cases. The Harris County District Attorney's Office would not speculate about just how badly McGhee's mistakes will affect the 65 cases.
“Defense lawyers are going to have a chance to determine for themselves the relevance of these errors or omissions,“ Tom Berg, first assistant for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said Wednesday.
“Because most of these cases have not yet been fully adjudicated, we won’t speculate on the possible impact, if any,” he said.
The Houston Forensic Science Center launched an audit of all 88 cases the officer had worked on since October 2015 after the DA's office alerted lab staff about various errors prosecutors had noticed in the officer's crime scene reports. According to the audit — which found far more than just a few isolated mistakes — the officer had done things like fail to process bloody footprints at a murder scene, describe crime scenes inaccurately and not record spent cartridges found in a police car or on the ground while investigating officer-involved shootings because, in one case, the bullets maybe fired by a police officer "appeared to be unrelated."
In total, 65 cases had incomplete documentation, 32 had administrative errors and, in eight cases, evidence was misplaced. The affected cases included 26 homicides and five officer-involved shootings.
"It's not minor. It can create problems of proof in a court of law," David Mitcham, DA's office trial bureau chief, said during a press conference. "As the law requires, the State of Texas has the burden of proof to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. So therefore, any deficiency in the collection of evidence at crime scenes is extremely disturbing and important."
During the audit, the forensic science center also discovered that the supervisor, Sergeant Jeff Cruiser, who was tasked with checking the HPD crime scene investigators' work, had failed to even notice the officer's mistakes. Cruiser has been temporarily removed from the supervisory position. HPD Chief Art Acevedo said in a statement he is ordering "an administrative inquiry" into the matter and will release findings of HPD's own audit soon.
From the sounds of the internal memo written by Crime Scene Director Jerry Peña, there's a chance McGhee may get his job back after undergoing more training and completing a competency test. But Peña still voiced concerns about whether the training would do any good.
"I am not confident that [the officer] can be trained on the basic instinctive investigative skills needed of a crime scene investigator," Peña wrote. "In several instances, he knew what and how to do things correctly but chose not to do it. Later, after being notified of errors, he responded, 'I knew that' and 'I forgot to do that.'"
As the Houston Press reported last August, HPD wanted its crime scene unit back so it wouldn't have to answer to civilian bosses at the forensic science center. At the time, HFSC said the need for independent oversight was too important for the police department to be without it.
“The science starts in the field,” Dr. Peter Stout, president of HFSC, said. “If evidence doesn’t come out of the field correctly and in a quality fashion, it doesn’t matter how good the laboratory runs. It’s still going to be a problem for the case."
HFSC has notified the Texas Forensic Science Commission about the errors.
This is at least the third time within the past year that defense attorneys have had to deal with evidence problems arising from various debacles from different agencies. In August, Harris County Precinct 4 became entangled in a massive scandal after news broke that the property room manager had destroyed thousands of pieces of drug evidence, affecting more than 100 cases. Not long after, HPD's sprinkler malfunctioned in its evidence storage room, affecting far fewer cases but damaging evidence in some.
"During my term as president of Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association," said defense attorney Tyler Flood, "I've never heard of more evidentiary preservation problems than we have in this one-year period. It just keeps happening. It's almost like, hey, here we go again."