Crime-scene investigator blamed for evidence errors had prior problems but returned to work

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The Houston crime-scene investigator blamed for errors that could jeopardize dozens of criminal cases was investigated once before because of suspected mistakes, including shoddy work on two officer-involved shootings, according to an internal review released Thursday.

The results, compiled in a May 2016 report, led to additional forensics training and clearance for the investigator to return to work at the Houston Forensic Science Center, the independent crime lab that processes evidence for hundreds of cases each year.

The investigator’s mistakes came to light this week in a crime lab audit sent to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office that outlined issues with key evidence in 65 cases, including 26 homicides, five officer-involved shootings and six child deaths since 2015.

The disclosure Thursday that he had prior problems brought swift criticism from Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association President Tyler Flood, who alerted his members to review cases that may have been handled by the investigator.

“You should not have people who are not adequately trained in these positions, period, handling … murder cases and responsible for maintaining evidence and maintaining the integrity of evidence,” Flood said Thursday. “He was not only trained, he was double-trained. You either train them to do the job the right way or you don’t let them do the job.”

An assistant district attorney first raised questions about the investigator’s work in two officer-involved shootings from 2015. That inquiry prompted Jerry Pena, director of the forensic center’s evidence collection division, to initiate an internal review.

The May 2016 report was completed by a sergeant, who served as a technical supervisor in the center’s evidence collection division. The review examined an August 2015 shooting involving a Texas Southern University officer responding to an active shooter at a campus apartment complex and an October 2015 shooting involving an Houston Police Department officer ambushed by armed teens while driving his personal vehicle.

The review determined that in both shootings, the investigator overlooked evidence and failed to enter key information into computer tracking systems.

In the TSU shooting, he did not take photos of the crime scene, officer or murder suspect; he overlooked a cartridge casing that had rolled under the vehicle; and he did not collect the officer’s weapon for testing.

The report concluded that there was “some validity” to the prosecutor’s complaint and that there had been some “significant” errors.

“There were things that should have been done that were not,” the report said. “There was evidence that was found but not documented. There was evidence that should have been found, but was not.”

The investigator, Justin McGee – a Houston police officer who has now gone back to patrol – has not been available for comment since the news broke. He joined the Houston Forensic Science Center in July 2014 and was “one of the more senior people on the night shift,” according to the report.

His supervisor, HPD Sgt. Jeff Cruser, was cited in the audit for failing to catch McGee’s mistakes during routine checks and has been removed temporarily from service, officials said. He likewise could not be reached for comment.

The technical supervisor who wrote the report concluded the investigator was “trainable” and had expressed a desire to remain with the crime scene unit, so he did.

But the errors continued, according to the audit that followed less than a year later.

A supervisor who started working in January questioned the investigator’s work, prompting a broad-based review of 88 cases handled by him since 2015, forensic science center spokeswoman Ramit Plushnick-Masti said Thursday.

The audit released this week found that 65 cases had incomplete documentation, including 32 with administrative errors. In eight cases, evidence had been misplaced.

The investigator repeatedly failed to collect DNA swabs or test for latent fingerprints, and left sometimes-bloody evidence – a towel on a bed or a belt used to strike a homicide victim – at the scene.

In at least two cases, the investigator failed to take measurements of bloody footprints, and once reported he did not take photos because he “did not want to contaminate his camera equipment,” according to the audit.

The revelations were the latest in a string of evidence-related problems that have left prosecutors reviewing hundreds of cases in the past year.

The district attorney’s office learned about the widespread problems revealed by the audit on April 3 from the forensic science center and began notifying defense attorneys late Tuesday.

On Thursday, First Assistant Harris County District Attorney Tom Berg emphasized that the office is “vigilant” about mistakes.

“We have a responsibility, when we find them, to bring them to the attention of the courts, defense lawyers and investigative agencies,” he said in a statement.

Police Chief Art Acevedo said Wednesday that the department will conduct an “administrative inquiry” into the problems.

Plushnick-Masti, meanwhile, said the latest revelations have helped the forensic center improve its practices and procedures.

“We have changed some protocols, in collaboration with HPD, to address some of the findings, such as having two crime scene investigators at all officer-involved shootings,” she said.

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