Conviction reversed because Houston crime lab analyst, supervisor did not disclose evidence problems
A Harris County woman’s DWI conviction in 2014 was reversed Tuesday because a Houston crime lab analyst and her supervisor did not report shoddy evidence labeling that was required to be disclosed to defense lawyers, the court ruled.
The reversal by the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston is the latest in a series of missteps by the city-funded Houston Forensic Science Center, which took over operations of the Houston Police Department crime lab. The ruling involves the jury trial of Lesley Esther Diamond, who was convicted of a Class A misdemeanor largely on the testimony of city crime lab analyst Andrea Gooden.
Gooden was suspended in April 2014 after alerting her supervisor, William Arnold, that she had mislabeled a blood sample that apparently arrived at the lab with errors on the label. She was suspended from casework reports while the agency investigated. Gooden continued to testify in three trials, including Diamond’s, about other samples without informing prosecutors or the defense about her suspension, the court found.
“Arnold did not document or disclose this action to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office because he did not want to damage Gooden’s career or subject her to harsh cross-examination by a defense lawyer,” the appeals court ruled. “There was no other testimony regarding (Diamond’s) blood alcohol level from any other witness other than Gooden.”
Diamond was convicted of driving while intoxicated and jurors agreed to a more severe conviction after Gooden testified that Diamond had a blood alcohol level of .193, more than twice the legal limit of .08. That enhancement allowed the jury to convict diamond for a more serious crime, subjecting her to the possibility of a year in jail, double what her maximum sentence would be on a Class B misdemeanor.
The court ruled that defense attorneys for Diamond should have been told about the suspension, which could have provided grounds for questioning Gooden’s testimony.
Evidence that can help the defense is known as “Brady material,” named for a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, and must be divulged by prosecutors.
The ruling makes it clear that the lab withheld Brady material, said Diamond’s attorney, Josh Schaffer.
He said the case is test for district attorney Kim Ogg’s administration, and argued they should not challenge the court ruling and dismiss his client’s case.
“(Former DA) Devon Anderson’s administration opposed this and was complicit in the ongoing attempt to cover up the wrongdoing at the crime lab,” he said. “With today’s decision, Kim Ogg’s administration has the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to transparency and criminal justice reform and improving forensic science.”
Schaffer said the ruling could affect two other trials in which Gooden testifed. He also said other defense attorneys may want to look at her work in an estimated 1,500 other cases that she had handled prior to her suspension, according to official records.
She returned to labwork on July 28, 2014 and is currently an analyst in the toxicology section.
The director of city lab noted Tuesday that Gooden reported the mislabeling herself, and the situation led to improvements at the lab.
“HFSC believes the analyst, Andrea Gooden, did the right thing by coming forward with the error and believes we have stronger systems in place now to help ensure errors are caught and a culture that encourages transparency internally and externally,” said Dr. Peter Stout, CEO and HFSC president in a written statement. “Following this incident, HFSC implemented a policy to reject for toxicology analysis any improperly labeled or packaged evidence. It also took steps to simplify the submission process for requests for toxicology testing.”
He said the lab has invested time and money to become more transparent and make information available on its website. In addition, he said, changes and improvements have been made to processes, training and personnel to ensure that similar mistakes do not occur again.
He noted that “any errors that occur and are investigated and documented by HFSC are then made publicly accessible on the website.”
Stout’s comments come after a January 2015 report from the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which included harsh criticism of the city’s forensic science lab that said Arnold, Gooden’s supervisor, intentionally failed to document the suspension.
The report described the interim lab manager as “professionally negligent.”
Arnold is now the lab’s information technology director, a move Schaffer questioned.
“I’ve consistently praised Ms. Gooden for her willingness to come forward and expose what happened,” he said. “It was Will Arnold’s role, who was at the time the director of toxicology, to keep it quiet and not tell the DA’s office about it because he wanted to protect her and their cases and their reputation.”
Schaffer said Arnold was at the center of a system of withholding information from defendants.
“He knew that if he told the DA’s office about it, everything could blow up,” Shaffer said. “That is a culture of corruption.”
A report from the city’s Office of Inspector General in December 2014 found that Arnold knew Gooden was scheduled to testify less than 10 days after being suspended and noted, like the appeals court did, that he wanted to protect her from cross examination.
Late Tuesday, the Harris County District Attorney’s office filed an appeal to the ruling arguing that the 14th Court of Appeals did not address their argument that Diamond’s grounds for appeal changed midway through the process, and therefore her claims were not valid.
Earlier, prosecutor Clint Morgan had noted the “procedural weirdness” of the Diamond case and argued that her appeal should be dismissed without comment.
When she was originally convicted, in 2014, the jury agreed that Diamond was guilty of a Class A misdemeanor because Gooden testified her blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. But the judge inaccurately wrote down that she was guilty of the less serious offense of a Class B misdemeanor.
After the appeals court dismissed her first appeal, Diamond had the record changed to accurately show that she was convicted of a more serious crime. She then filed her appeal again, protesting the lack of disclosure which led the appeals court to rule that Gooden’s testimony was material to the conviction.