400+ Harris County cases reexamined after DNA analyst accused of false testimony in decade-old case

Tuesday, June 7, 2022
Forensic analyst's false testimony leads to 438 cases re-examined
13 Investigates' Ted Oberg breaks down the reason nearly 450 criminal cases could be re-examined, all due to a single forensic analyst who no longer works for Harris County.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- Hundreds of defense lawyers and accused criminals are being told this afternoon a DNA analyst in their case may not be able to be trusted.

The Harris County District Attorney's Office is notifying about 438 defendants that their criminal cases need to be re-examined due a DNA analyst who gave false and/or misleading testimony in an old case.

Officials say Stephen Adam Vinson, who used to work at the Texas Department of Public Safety's DNA lab, testified about the condition in which DNA samples in a particular case.

The case was for Joseph Colone, a Beaumont-area murder suspect whose case was overturned due - in part - to the DNA testimony in question.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals determined "his testimony was false because it omitted relevant information and gave the jury a false impression about the conditions in which important items of physical evidence had been stored by the laboratory."

After giving the testimony, but before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals handed down its ruling, Vinson was hired by the Houston Forensic Science Center in the DNA section. He has worked for Houston's lab since 2015.

After the court's findings, he was terminated by the Houston Forensic Science Center.

The Harris County DA is not recommending anyone be released from custody or have their cases dropped, but say those cases that Vinson worked need to be examined.

Notices are being sent to attorneys and/or defendants in 198 pending cases and 240 disposed cases. These are not likely to be exoneration cases instead cases in which evidence needs to be tested again.

Peter Stout, the CEO of the Houston Forensic Science Center, told 13 Investigates he has "no reason to question the work Vinson did for the HFSC," but because of the court findings he could not continue with the organization.

HFSC's policy is to not use all of a DNA sample for testing. In almost all of the cases there should be enough evidence to retest and analyze if a court determines it is proper.

While this is significant for each of the 438 cases - many of which are likely to be sexual assault cases - the impact on the criminal justice system is equally significant.

As it is today, the forensic biology section of the HFSC has 341 sexual assault kits which are backlogged more than 30 days, some much longer. There are 606 DNA requests backlogged in the lab (sexual assault + all other crimes). The average age of those requests is 152 days and it is getting longer.

The loss of the one analyst will make the backlogs longer as it will take a long time to replace him and train the replacement to be able to do the work

"Our progress in reducing DNA backlogs has reversed. This is directly attributable to the inevitable consequences of the Colone case. This increasing trend can only accelerate. Even if only a fraction of the thousands of cases jeopardized must now be reworked, this trend will only be amplified," Stout wrote it in an email to Harris County criminal justice leaders earlier this week. "There is no place in the country that can absorb this work. This is where we are at nationally much less right here. Literally the loss of one analyst can be felt across the entire country. There is no excess capacity, much less excess capacity to take this scale of impact. It will take years to replace the capacity we've lost. We may be able to train a new person in less time, but to reach the level of proficiency and productivity needed is a very long arc. We must start now."

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