Steve Shellist – ABC-13 Legal Analyst – Comments on Houston Forensic Analyst’s Termination

April 22, 2024

The Shellist Law Firm, PLLC

Steve Shellist, Founding Attorney of the Shellist Law Firm and Legal Analyst for ABC-13, was recently featured on a segment profiling the fallout created by the recent termination of a Harris County DNA analyst.

As ABC-13 reports, a former analyst employed by the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC) was terminated, in part, after failing a proficiency test. According to a statement released by the HFSC, the former analyst committed errors in handling proficiency test materials, which are administered to evaluate a forensic expert’s skills and understanding of the institute’s processes. While the HFSC has stated that these proficiency errors did not occur in actual cases, it is bound by law to disclose its findings to the Harris County D.A.’s Office. That’s because defense attorneys and their clients have a right to know about issues that impact evidence and the potential outcomes of cases. Forensic analysts, for example, handle critical evidence in criminal cases and can be called to testify about their work.

As a legal analyst for ABC-13 and a former Harris County Assistant District Attorney with considerable experience as a trial attorney, Mr. Shellist discussed how issues involving the handling of forensics raise considerable questions about the validity of evidence and purported findings. As he noted, the HFSC’s termination of its analyst could provide defense attorneys with an opportunity to seek more favorable results for their clients, some of whom face decades or even life in prison. If anything, it will allow them to request that key evidence in their client’s cases be re-examined and create a great deal of work for the District Attorney’s Office.

“I think 90% of the defense lawyers out there are going to say, ‘yeah, we want these re-tested.’”

Mr. Shellist also noted how the snafu largely impacts the victims in these cases, who may not be able to see justice secured. While that could happen if it’s shown that errors did in fact occur, he explains, it may also be the result of the D.A.’s Office offering reduced plea agreements or dropping cases entirely due to the difficulties and delays caused by having to re-test evidence or re-try cases.

“The D.A.’s Office may decide that’s too much work to put on our plate or the forensic lab’s plate so we’re just going to cut deals or dismiss cases as a result of this.”

Mr. Shellist additionally commented on how the debacle provides a larger lesson about DNA evidence and how it can function as a double-edged sword when used in criminal cases.

“While it can be very helpful in finding people and solving crimes, it can also be responsible for putting someone who’s innocent in prison for 5, 10, 20, 30, 40 years or life.”

The HFSC has not publicly identified any cases where errors were found, but the Harris County D.A.’s Office has issued nearly 400 “Brady Notices” to defense attorneys involved in currently active cases where the analyst handled forensic evidence and could be called to testify, as well as 170 cases that have already reached some type of conclusion. The cases span a spectrum of charges, ranging from violent crimes and thefts to sexual assaults and a high-profile case involving the November 2022 murder of Migos rapper Takeoff.

It is important to note that even victims of certain crimes may have legal recourse in the civil system, going after those responsible for their injuries. It is unfortunate that the criminal justice system often times leaves criminal victims feeling like justice was not served. Many times, their offenders get their cases dismissed, not because the crime didn’t happen, but for a host of other reasons. This inequity is inherent in all counties and all states throughout this country. Sometimes the civil court system is the only way to fight back.

You can view the full ABC-13 segment featuring Mr. Shellist’s legal commentary here.


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