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Houston Wrongful Convictions

Nurse's missteps throw guilt in child abuse cases into doubt

Faulty physical exams performed by a former nurse with the Children's Assessment Center may have resulted in the wrongful conviction of some defendants in child sex abuse cases, Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said Monday.

Rosenthal said a review of examinations performed by the nurse found potential problems in approximately 170 cases in which charges were filed. He could not say how many of the cases are still pending and could now be in jeopardy.

"But I'm more concerned that she committed an error and that someone was convicted wrongfully," he said.

The Children's Assessment Center (CAC) was founded in 1991 by Harris County to provide a coordinated approach to evaluating and treating children believed to have been molested. Suspected abuse victims are given a physical examination, counseling and other services. The results of the examinations help the district attorney's office decide which cases to prosecute and what can be used as evidence at trial.

The potential problems surfaced after the nurse left the CAC, Rosenthal said, and the district attorney's office asked an independent doctor to verify her work in one case before it went to trial. Rosenthal said he does not know what sparked the concern.

But at that point, the office initiated a "peer review" by area doctors of all of her cases. The reviews, he said, included medical records as well as either photographs or videotapes.

Rosenthal estimated that physicians have found potential problems in as many as 20 percent of the pending cases.

The Houston Chronicle was unable to contact the nurse for comment. Additionally, neither CAC officials nor officials with University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, which has a working relationship with the CAC, returned calls.

Although not all of the nurse's examinations resulted in the filing of criminal charges, CACe-mails obtained by the Chronicle under the state open records law indicate that she was involved in at least 800 alleged child abuse cases.

"It is my understanding that you are reviewing the 800 cases seen by (the nurse)," reads a Feb. 26 e-mail from CAC executive director Elaine Stolte to Dr. Rebecca Girardet of the Health Science Center and CAC. "Also, there is a special investigator with the District Attorney's office assigned to review the cases brought to him that pose potential problems. Of these, the cases that are disposed of and may have resulted in a guilty plea or sentencing by a jury solely based on the medical findings will be the ones of most concern."

Also e-mailed on Feb. 26 was a note to Stolte in which Girardet said she had "come across another of (the nurse's) charts that contains flaws that could potentially have repercussions."

In a Feb. 27 e-mail to a member of the CAC Partner Council, Stolte wrote: "I just had a meeting with FBI Special Agent Glenn Gregory. The Oklahoma case that was a Federal Prosecution and resulted in Federal Sentencing had a misdiagnosis by (the nurse)."

After listing several questions that federal authorities wanted answered, Stolte added that Gregory was "concerned that this may get out into the media."

Gregory did not return a call from the Chronicle on Monday.

Rosenthal added that his office is contacting defense attorneys who represent the defendants in the cases identified as potentially having problems.

The immediate past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association said he thinks defense attorneys should be notified in any case handled by the nurse -- whether potential problems have been discovered or not.

"Otherwise it's going to fall on the backs of every defense lawyer who's had a sexual assault case in however many years she (was there) to attempt to follow up individually," said Troy McKinney. "And that's just going to be a disaster."

The revelation about the problems with CAC cases is the latest in a series of scandals involving the collection and processing of evidence in Harris County criminal cases. In December 2002, the Houston Police Department was forced to shutter its DNA laboratory after an independent audit found numerous problems including shoddy science, undertrained employees and a decaying workplace. The lab remains closed and DNA evidence is being retested in almost 400 cases.

The DNA lab embarrassment was followed by last year's closure of the HPD toxicology lab. Law enforcement officials say the retesting of toxicology cases may dwarf the DNA lab problem.