One evening in November of 2002, Carol Batie was sitting on her living-room couch in Houston, flipping through channels on the television, when she happened to catch a teaser for an upcoming news segment on KHOU 11, the local CBS affiliate. She leapt to her feet. “I scared the kids, I was screaming so loud,” Batie told me recently. “I said, ‘Thank you, God!’ I knew that all these years later, my prayers had been answered.”
The subject of the segment was the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory, among the largest public forensic centers in Texas. By one estimate, the lab handled DNA evidence from at least 500 cases a year—mostly rapes and murders, but occasionally burglaries and armed robberies. Acting on a tip from a whistle-blower, KHOU 11 had obtained dozens of DNA profiles processed by the lab and sent them to independent experts for analysis. The results, William Thompson, an attorney and a criminology professor at the University of California at Irvine, told a KHOU 11 reporter, were terrifying: It appeared that Houston police technicians were routinely misinterpreting even the most basic samples.
“If this is incompetence, it’s gross incompetence … and repeated gross incompetence,” Thompson said. “You have to wonder if [the techs] could really be that stupid.”
Carol Batie watched the entire segment, rapt. As soon as it ended, she e-mailed KHOU 11. “My son is named Josiah Sutton,” she began, “and he has been falsely accused of a crime.” Four years earlier, Batie explained, Josiah, then 16, and his neighbor Gregory Adams, 19, had been arrested for the rape of a 41-year-old Houston woman, who told police that two young men had abducted her from the parking lot of her apartment complex and taken turns assaulting her as they drove around the city in her Ford Expedition.
A few days after reporting the crime, the woman spotted Sutton and Adams walking down a street in southwest Houston. She flagged down a passing patrol car and told the officers inside that she had seen her rapists. Police detained the boys and brought them to a nearby station for questioning. From the beginning, Sutton and Adams denied any involvement. They both had alibis, and neither of them matched the profile from the victim’s original account: She’d described her assailants as short and skinny. Adams was 5 foot 11 and 180 pounds. Sutton was three inches taller and 25 pounds heavier, the captain of his high-school football team.
The DNA evidence was harder to refute. Having seen enough prime-time TV to believe that a DNA test would vindicate them, Sutton and Adams had agreed, while in custody, to provide the police with blood samples. The blood had been sent to the Houston crime lab, where an analyst named Christy Kim extracted and amplified DNA from the samples until the distinct genetic markers that swim in every human cell were visible, on test strips, as a staggered line of blue dots.
Read the rest here: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/a-reasonable-doubt/480747/