GIST: Dozens of criminal prosecutions could be in jeopardy after errors by a Houston crime-scene investigator raised questions about key evidence in cases that include 26 homicides, five officer-involved shootings and six child deaths since 2015. The revelations Wednesday in a crime lab audit sent prosecutors with the Harris County District Attorney's Office scrambling to untangle the possible problems, first with a blanket notification to criminal defense attorneys and then a public statement. "Any deficiencies in the collection of evidence at a crime scene are extremely disturbing and important," said David Mitcham, the trial bureau chief of the DA's office. "It's not minor. It can create problems of proof later in a court of law." It is the latest in a string of unrelated evidence problems that have left prosecutors reviewing hundreds of cases in the past year. Harris County has been beset in the last year with a series of scandals involving forensic evidence – partly exposed by whistleblowers and partly uncovered by county officials who have audited procedures in an effort to improve procedures or investigate potential innocence claims. *In July, 298 wrongful convictions were identified as part of an ongoing audit of Harris County convictions that had been based only on roadside tests or circumstantial evidence that later was found to be incorrect. *The same month, the Houston Forensic Science Center identified problems uncovered in an audit of crime scene unit investigations that might have impacted officer-involved shooting cases. *In September, the Harris County District Attorney's Office announced the office was reviewing hundreds of cases after revelations that officials at the Precinct 4 Constable's office had improperly destroyed evidence. *Also in September, questions were raised testing for DWI cases after a toxicology expert resigned amid scrutiny that she had misrepresented her academic qualifications. *In October, more than 4,200 criminal cases involving 15,000 pieces of evidence were under review after a sprinkler malfunctioned in the Houston Police Department's evidence room. The crime scene investigator made errors in 65 cases since 2015 by failing to gather possible blood evidence, collect weapons or shell casings or take photos at crime scenes, among other shortcomings, according to an audit by the Houston Forensic Science Center. The independent crime lab replaced the beleaguered Houston Police Department lab that had gained national notoriety for mismanagement and other problems. The alert Wednesday sent defense attorneys likewise digging through case files..........Auditors reviewed 88 cases handled by the officer, and found that 65 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 or belt used to strike a homicide victim - sitting 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 crime-scene investigator, Justin McGee, an HPD officer assigned to the lab, has been sent back to patrol. His supervisor, Sgt. Jeff Cruser, who was cited in the audit for failing to catch McGee's mistakes during routine checks, has been removed temporarily from service, officials said.........Among the cases with evidence problems are five officer-involved shootings between the fall of 2015 and spring 2016. The most recent came in March of last year, when officers responded to a call for a shooting in progress in the 200 block of South 70th. They found 28-year-old Johnathon Sanchez armed with a pistol, and opened fire when he pointed the gun at officers, according to police. Sanchez was charged with aggravated assault of a public servant, but seven months later prosecutors added a murder charge, accusing him of fatally shooting a woman the day of his arrest. Among the evidence that the audit says was mishandled in the case was a spent cartridge case left at the scene that the investigator concluded "appeared to be unrelated." Allen Isbell, Sanchez's attorney, said that the revelation will factor into the defense strategy, especially when it comes to putting together two alleged crime scenes. "The big thing is if they say the casings found at the shooting with police officers matched the casings or bullets found where the woman was murdered," Isbell said. "It's two different scenes." He said he was shocked to hear about yet another evidence debacle at the crime lab. "I'm surprised, quite frankly," he said. "Since we went through all of this before I thought we'd be doubly careful this time, and it appears that somebody was not careful. It's troubling to think, since scientific evidence is so important to a jury, that we don't make sure to cross every T and dot every I before we give out a report." In another shooting, Geno Salinas is accused of murder in a case he said was self-defense. His attorney, Deborah Summers, said the crime scene investigator's inaccurate measurements or recording of those measurements may make a difference in the case. "We really need a very accurate picture of what was happening," Summers said. "There's certainly some questions about how some of the evidence was collected and what was not collected." Other cases of officer-involved shootings - including the death of a driver after a fatal car crash in November 2015 and the accidental shooting of a 16-year-old suspect during a foot chase - were described as having "minor" errors. The cases involving six child deaths and several instances of child abuse cited problems including findings that possible evidence may have been left behind or not reported - including a towel that may have contained blood and a BB gun. Crime scene photos revealed the evidence but it was not collected or included in the report, the audit said."

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