City of Houston Reaches $3.1 Million Settlement with Wrongfully Convicted Man

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by Jay Pate

Back in 1987, George Rodriguez was convicted of kidnapping and sexual assault of a 14-year old girl. The crime was committed by two men. One of the men was arrested and confessed to the crime. He told police that his accomplice had been a man named Yanez. However, Houston Police arrested George Rodriguez.

The State proceeded to trial against Mr. Rodriguez after the Houston Police Department Crime Lab claimed that Yanez could not have contributed to semen recovered from the victim’s rape kit. The lab report was false.

At the trial against Mr. Rodriguez, Houston crime lab staff provided critical testimony that Yanez could be excluded as a suspect. The testimony was based on the false lab report.

Mr. Rodriguez was convicted and spent 17 years in prison before proving his innocence. He won his release based on DNA evidence in 2004. Mr. Rodriguez filed a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Houston.

During the civil rights trial, the City of Houston conceded that the lab report was knowingly fabricated but argued the false report had not caused Rodriguez’s conviction. Further, the City argued that it could not be held responsible under the facts of the case based on applicable Supreme Court rulings.

In 2009, the jury found that the Houston Chief of Police had been deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk that the City’s policy of inadequate supervision or training in the crime lab would lead to constitutional violations similar to the one suffered by Rodriguez. The jury awarded $5 million in damages to Mr. Rodriguez for his wrongful conviction. The City did not pay the verdict and instead appealed the case to the Fifth Circuit of Appeals.

Meanwhile, while Houston’s appeal was pending, the Supreme Court decided Connick v. Thompson, 131 S. Ct. 1350 (2011). In Connick, the court took away a $14 million verdict that been awarded to a man wrongfully convicted in New Orleans. The Supreme Court held that the Attorney General’s office in New Orleans could not be held responsible for violating the man’s constitutional rights by failing to turn over evidence favorable to his defense because there was insufficient evidence of a “pattern” of similar misconduct such that a need for training would have been “obvious.” In short, the Connick decision set forth a different standard for determining when a city can be responsible in such circumstances. The Fifth Circuit decided to send Houston’s appeal back to the district court to determine what effect Connick had on the judgment for Mr. Rodriguez.

This month, with the case still pending, the City of Houston and Mr. Rodriguez reached a settlement. The City has agreed to pay $3.1 million to resolve the lawsuit.