NBC News
updated 10/6/2004 10:15:30 AM ET 2004-10-06T14:15:30

George Rodriguez has spent 17 years in a Texas prison for the rape of a 14-year-old girl.  Prosecutors got a 60-year sentence, largely based on blood and hair samples analyzed by the Houston Police Department crime lab. But two years ago, the case against Rodriguez began to unravel.

Criminologist William C. Thompson, who has studied some of the lab's cases, says the lab did bad blood work, kept poor records and mixed up its findings.

“This is the worst lab I've ever seen,” says Thompson. “The reports would say a DNA test matched sample A with sample B and the underlying records would show that sample A did not match sample B.”

Thompson says lab findings were misrepresented when Rodriguez went to trial, and now, in a surprising reversal, the Harris County District Attorney admits Rodriguez was wrongly convicted because of inaccurate crime lab tests and is taking steps to get him released.

Prosecutor Bill Hawkins is the man who sent Rodriguez to prison.

“I’m upset that the testing was not accurate and that he didn’t receive a fair trial… We need to do what’s right here,” says Hawkins.

Rodriguez's family is overjoyed.

“I’m happy. Now he can come home,” says George's mother, Mary Rodriguez.

If Rodriguez really didn't receive a fair trial, how many other cases involving Houston's crime lab were also flawed?

“The implications are extraordinary,” says Rodriguez' attorney Barry Scheck.

Scheck, who was part of the O. J. Simpson defense team, believes the Houston crime lab may have botched many other cases.

“When somebody makes a mistake that is either egregiously incompetent or an act of fraud, you have no choice but to conduct an audit of all their prior cases,” he says.

Scheck wants an examination of 25 years worth of cases.

There have been calls to delay the executions of inmates sent to death row using evidence tested by the lab, but Texas Governor Rick Perry has rejected a moratorium on the death penalty. Edward Green III, sentenced to die for killing two people after a 1992 robbery in Houston, was executed Tuesday night despite arguments from his attorneys that ballistics tests run in the Houston crime lab were unreliable.

Still, defense lawyers say more innocent people might be freed as old cases are reviewed. And re-examining the evidence may lead police to some criminals who might have gotten away.

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