The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently began overturning old convictions based on this episode, starting with instances where evidence was destroyed post-conviction, making retesting impossible. The general counsel at the Texas Forensic Science Commission has estimated that evidence was destroyed in 25-50% of cases where Jonathan Salvador performed testing.Who is Jonathan Salvador, you ask? He's the Texas Department of Public Safety employee who tested almost 5,000 different drug samples at the Houston drug lab. More importantly, he faked the results, for one despicable reason or another.
For a period of many years, this self-appointed ambassador for justice went about his dirty work, a process that involved sloppy, if not fraudulent testing for Texas district attorneys. His work wasn't just limited to Harris County, and it now looks like more than 30 counties relied upon testing done by Salvador in that very lab. The result? Lots of people, many of them innocent, went to prison on the strength of Salvador's faked tests.
Now it looks like there might finally be some justice in the queue for thousands of individuals.
Former Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos responded to this fiasco in the way one might expect. She asked for re-testing in those cases where evidence was still available. That alone figured to unlock the doors of Texas prisons for a number of aggrieved prisoners. But it also raised important questions - how can we trust the chain of custody of evidence if it's proven that a dishonest lab employee was in possession of the evidence in all of these cases? These developments led Texas defense attorneys to note that Salvador could have easily tainted the samples, given his desire to ring up convictions.
It appears that the high court for Texas criminal justice - the Court of Criminal Appeals - agrees with those attorneys. Last week, the court heard a habeus petition styled EX PARTE PATRICK LYNN HOBBS, and in its opinion, the Court noted a development that might just shake the foundations of the Texas industrial prison complex. The court held, in granting relief for Hobbs:
Applicant was convicted of possession of a controlled substance and sentenced to eight years' imprisonment. He did not appeal his conviction. Applicant contends that his due process rights were violated because a forensic scientist did not follow accepted standards when analyzing evidence and therefore the results of his analyses are unreliable. A Department of Public Safety report shows that the lab technician who was solely responsible for testing the evidence in this case is the scientist found to have committed misconduct. While there is evidence remaining that is available to retest in this case, that evidence was in the custody of the lab technician in question. This Court believes his actions are not reliable; therefore custody was compromised, resulting in a due process violation. Applicant is therefore entitled to relief.
There's great news for people who believe that folks shouldn't be jailed for a decade in the wake of egregious due process violations. It appears that any case where Salvador was solely responsible for testing will be eligible for relief, and relief in this case means vacating the wrongful conviction.
The court understates its position when it notes that Salvador was not "reliable." Either through negligence, malfeasance, or some combination of the two, his work produced fake results that demonstrated a heightened callousness to the value of human life. And as a result, more than 4,000 people were sentenced to more than 40,000 years in prison. The average sentence for a person in a Salvador case is eight years, but it looks like many of those individuals will receive an unlikely get-out-of-jail-free card.
And that's great news, unless you have an ownership interest in the prison industry.