Undone by DNA

updated 05/19/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/19/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On March 12 Dr. Elizabeth Johnson got some good news: a call from an attorney telling her that Josiah Sutton, 21, had just been released from a Texas prison. Sutton had already served four years after being convicted of rape, a verdict based almost entirely on faulty DNA evidence presented by the Houston Police Department's crime lab. If the moment was sweet for Sutton, it was no less a vindication for Johnson, a forensic scientist who has made it her mission to expose the lab's deficiencies. Says Johnson: "If you're not going to address the problems in your own profession, why be in it?"

In what has become a full-blown scandal for the Houston police, Sutton's is the first of what are likely to be hundreds of cases that will be reviewed and possibly overturned due to shoddy work in the department's crime lab. Thanks in no small part to Johnson's repeated criticisms, the American Society of Crime Lab Directors launched an audit of the lab late last year. In a scathing 50-page report in January, the auditors described a litany of irregularities. In response, acting Police Chief Tim Oettmeier shut down the unit pending a full review. "Elizabeth Johnson made the difference," says Bob Wicoff, the attorney for Josiah Sutton. "She is dogged."

If so, it is because Johnson, 42, is a true believer in the power of science to do good. Growing up in Spartanburg, S.C., she excelled at math and science. After attending Wofford College in her hometown, she got her Ph.D. in immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina. In 1991 she landed a job setting up the DNA lab for the Harris County medical examiner in Houston.

She loved the work. But that abruptly changed in April 1995, when her office took on the case of Joe Durrett, who had been arrested for bludgeoning two sisters to death. A clump of hair was found in the hand of one of the victims, a sample that a colleague of Johnson's concluded was a match with Durrett's. Johnson disagreed; the sample was mostly long blond hairs, while Durrett had short dark hair. Her willingness to undermine the prosecution's case—she later testified for Durrett, who was eventually acquitted—seemed to infuriate her coworkers. Johnson says that during the months that followed, she was harassed in ways large and small, including having her lab space sabotaged and her building-access card canceled without notice. "I had trouble eating, sleeping or focusing on anything," says Johnson of her ordeal. In December 1996 she was fired, allegedly for trying to accrue comp time. She sued under the Texas Whistleblower's Act, arguing that she was being punished for trying to do her job properly, and got a $375,000 settlement from the county.

Her principled stand caught the attention of defense lawyers in Houston, who began calling on her to review the testing of a different crime lab, the one run by the city's police. There Johnson uncovered even more serious problems. She says she found police-lab record keeping was shoddy at best. "You'd have to have a decoder ring to understand their notes," says Johnson. The building that housed the lab since 1998 had a leaky roof that contaminated samples, prompting one analyst, who quit, to complain that the place was "more suited for condemnation" than sensitive testing.

Perhaps most disturbing, Johnson pointed out that, counter to normal procedure, the inadequately trained staff of the lab routinely used up the entire DNA sample being tested, meaning that evidence could not be retested later to verify the results. "You couldn't pass a high school science class doing things that way," says William Thompson, a professor of criminology at the University of California at Irvine, who is an authority on the use of DNA evidence.

In Johnson's view, at least some of the responsibility for the lab's shortcomings must fall on its longtime DNA chief Jim Bolding, who has declined media requests for comment. "A very aggressive prosecutor's office was relying on a very incompetent lab," says attorney Wicoff, a respected appellate specialist. "The results, as we're seeing now, were disastrous."

In the past few years Johnson frequently spoke out about her concerns, but to little avail. It was not until November, when TV station KHOU aired an investigative report on the abuses, using Johnson and Thompson as experts, that officials took steps. While acknowledging that hundreds of cases will have to be reevaluated, D.A. Chuck Rosenthal insists no one has been executed as a result of DNA analysis from the police crime lab. He adds, however, that the cases of 17 defendants on death row will be getting a close look. For Johnson, who now works for the private forensic-testing company Technical Associates in Ventura, Calif., justice delayed is better than no justice at all. "A real scientist is concerned with the truth," she says, "and whatever that proves to be, that's what it is."

Bill Hewitt
Carol Rust in Houston

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