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Lawyer says false DNA claim led to plea deal in sex assault
The Houston Cronicle ^ | May 16, 2003 | Steve McVicker and Roma Khanna

Posted on 05/16/2003 11:28:21 PM PDT by Pern

If Ronald Cantrell's case had gone to trial, jurors might have learned that DNA evidence never clearly linked him to the sexual assault of an 8-year-old girl.

They also might have heard that the girl has accused another man, her mother's boyfriend, of abusing her in the same way, by forcing her to perform oral sex.

Instead, he pleaded guilty, accepting a six-year sentence. And serious questions about his case, such as whether there ever was any DNA evidence, were never asked until a crisis at the Houston Police Department crime laboratory forced the review of hundreds of cases, including Cantrell's.

His defense lawyer, Grant Hardeway, maintains Cantrell, 35, pleaded guilty only because prosecutors confronted him with seemingly indisputable DNA evidence processed at the HPD lab. Hardeway said he did not know about the other allegations. Last week, he learned that new tests, ordered because of HPD's problems, cannot link his client to the crime.

Prosecutors, however, contend it was clear from the beginning that the DNA evidence was not strong enough to say without a doubt that Cantrell committed the crime. They said Hardeway had access to the girl's videotaped accusations against Cantrell and her mother's boyfriend.

They said they cannot explain why Cantrell, who has a prior charge of indecency with a child, pleaded guilty. But they maintain their confidence in his guilt.

"Really the DNA results benefited him," said Catalina Serna, a Harris County prosecutor who lowered her plea agreement from an initial 15-year sentence to six years after she learned the evidence did not conclusively match Cantrell's DNA. Serna said she likely would not have even presented the DNA in a trial.

"For us to make an offer like six years to someone with a prior, that basically tells us we would be going just on the kid's testimony," said Denise Oncken, chief of the child abuse division in the Harris County district attorney's office.

DNA evidence in the Cantrell case consisted of the shirt worn by the girl, who said Cantrell assaulted her while she visited his daughter at Cantrell's Houston apartment.

HPD's original analysis found that Cantrell could not be excluded as a contributor to the sample, but examiners could not conclusively identify Cantrell's profiles, a fact that Serna said she shared with his lawyer.

Hardeway, however, said the discussion about the DNA went quite differently.

"We were told that the DNA was unequivocally that of Ron Cantrell," Hardeway said. He said Friday he was "astonished" to find out otherwise. He said prosecutors violated their legal obligation to turn over all evidence that might raise doubts about a defendant's guilt.

Identigene, the private lab performing the new tests, could not locate semen or any other DNA evidence implicating Cantrell on the blouse of the little girl, which HPD had tested, prosecutors said. The lab examined the DNA sample HPD tested, but it was so deteriorated that a new test could not implicate Cantrell either.

Cantrell's case is one of 187 slated for retesting after an independent audit revealed numerous problems with the HPD crime lab, which was shut down in December. Overall, 1,300 convictions are under review.

Thus far, retests have been completed in 17 cases. The tests support the defendants' guilt in 13 cases and disagree with or have been unable to duplicate HPD's results in four. One man, Josiah Sutton, has been released from prison after DNA retesting excluded him as a suspect in the rape for which he was convicted.

In addition to the less-than-conclusive DNA evidence in Cantrell's case, allegations that the little girl had been sexually abused for more than two years by her mother's boyfriend could have enhanced Cantrell's defense if he and his lawyer had chosen to go to trial.

Hardeway said he knew only of "rumors" that the girl had been abused by her mother's boyfriend. He said he knew nothing about the videotape and never viewed it before his client pleaded guilty because it was "not available at the time."

Prosecutors Serna and Oncken said the tape was part of the district attorney's office file and would have been accessible to Hardeway. They also said the fact that the girl may have been abused by someone else in no way affects Cantrell's guilt.

Serna cited a January letter in which Cantrell acknowledges his guilt while asking state District Judge Brock Thomas for probation.

"The offense I commited (sic) has not only affected me, but everyone in my family," Cantrell wrote. Thomas denied Cantrell's request.

Hardeway said contents of the video may have helped his client. Following her accusation against Cantrell, investigators videotaped an interview with the girl at the Harris County Children's Assessment Center.

During the interview, in addition to reiterating her allegation of having been abused by Cantrell, the child also told authorities that for the past two years Stanley Eugene Clark, 32, her mother's boyfriend, had been forcing her to perform oral sex.

The abuse allegedly took place at Clark's apartment in Texas City beginning in November 1999. Clark was indicted on the charge of aggravated sexual assault of a child in March 2003. He is still at large.

TOPICS: Crime/Corruption; US: Texas
KEYWORDS: dna; plea; sexassault
They [Prosecutors] said they cannot explain why Cantrell, who has a prior charge of indecency with a child, pleaded guilty.

Oh come on! At least admit your wrong doing. The prosecutors probably used some vague term like "We have DNA evidence", knowing it was wrong/tainted. They probably then preceeded to inform the guy he'd get 20 years if it went to trial. Being a prior offendee, and knowing his credability was nonexestant, the guy opted for the 6 year stint, vs. a possible longer term.

Today's Prosecutors could care less about justice, all they want are convictions so when they run for public office, they can point to their conviction records as proof of 'being tough on crime'.

1 posted on 05/16/2003 11:28:21 PM PDT by Pern
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To: Pern
Today's Prosecutors could care less about justice, all they want are convictions so when they run for public office, they can point to their conviction records as proof of 'being tough on crime'.

Actually, it's better for them if they get the wrong guy, since then the real guy will keep committing crimes which means there are more crimes for the prosecutors to "solve".

2 posted on 05/17/2003 12:13:10 AM PDT by supercat (TAG--you're it!)
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To: MizSterious; Jaded; Rheo; alexandria
thought you may be interested.....
3 posted on 05/17/2003 5:22:45 AM PDT by CAPPSMADNESS (custom made smarmy, sanctimonious taglines created while you wait!!)
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To: Pern; Dog Gone
If this situation is as bad as the article suggests, it appears that the entire Houston criminal justice system needs a thorough cleaning. It would be sad if the mayor's race became a contest between the idiot who's in there now and Michael "K-mart raid" Berry.

Saving a Few Jobs

4 posted on 05/17/2003 8:29:01 AM PDT by WFTR (Liberty isn't for cowards)
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Fortunately, the idiot who is in there now is term-limited. The Houston Chronicle will do its best to get Bill White elected. Michael Berry may be a nice guy, but he's clueless.

I'm hoping Orlando Sanchez gets in.

5 posted on 05/17/2003 8:51:26 AM PDT by Dog Gone
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