Houston cases impacted by DNA analyst's 'false testimony' grows

Wednesday, June 8, 2022
Houston cases impacted by DNA analyst's 'false testimony' grows
The effects of what the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals calls "false testimony" from a DNA analyst grew exponentially overnight.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The effects of what the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals calls "false testimony" from a DNA analyst grew exponentially overnight, creating a staggering workload for already overburdened labs.

13 Investigates first reported on Tuesday that defense lawyers and accused criminals in about 400 cases were being told that a DNA analyst in their case may not be able to be trusted due to the concerning testimony in a Beaumont-area murder case.

Now, there's 2,100 cases impacted statewide.

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

Houston Forensic Science Center CEO Dr. Peter Stout said he's not sure how many of the estimated 1,400 local cases will require retesting, but the ones that do will add to the backlog.

WATCH: Pregnant woman's murder is case impacted by DNA analyst's testimony

A DNA analyst's "false testimony" is proving to have far-reaching consequences. One of the cases that may need to have evidence retested involves the murder of a pregnant woman and her unborn child.

"Anytime you have a circumstance like this, that cuts across so many cases, and you have an analyst that ends up with kind of a fundamental issue. The number of cases it affects is quite large and every one of those cases has (follow-up) challenges," Stout said. "So while this was a case that wasn't even a (Houston Forensic Science Center), it wasn't even in Harris County, it still has implications for Harris County cases because of the commonality of the analyst."

The problem stems from a decade-old case in which 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 are stored in a particular case.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals determined Vinson's "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."

Joseph Colone, a Beaumont-area murder suspect, had his case overturned due, in part, to the DNA testimony in question.

"This is the nature for a lot of things in forensics. Because of the long backlogs across the entire system, it can take years before you find where an issue is," Stout said. "The original analysis of that was in 2013, the testimony wasn't until 2017, (and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals) decision wasn't until 2022. So while the original issues started with this back in 2013, we really had no way of knowing about this until 2022."

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

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

As the labs go through all of the cases Vinson worked on, Stout said the testimony in question appears to be limited to how he described the storage of evidence, not any false identifications or bad science.

"Certainly, we will be going back with an audit effort to look and make sure, but we haven't seen anything that gives us reason to be immediately concerned about any of the technical work on stuff. This does appear to be really a testimony issue," Stout said.

But lawyers and defendants are the ones who will get to question that and possibly ask for the DNA evidence in their cases to be retested. The Houston lab's policy doesn't allow analysts to use all of its DNA evidence in the first round of testing, so if items do need to be retested, that aspect of it won't be an issue.

Still, the Houston lab, which thinks there may be as many as 1,400 local cases affected, already faces a five-month backlog for DNA testing.

It could mean longer waits for victims and the accused as the Houston lab faces a possible mountain of retests with no new funding and a long search to replace the fired analyst.

"If we're looking for an experienced analyst, we can go months without an applicant and that is the reality across the whole country," he said. "They just don't exist."

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