Crime clues occasionally appear at the most unexpected of times and places, which in one particular case isn’t good news for Bruce Houlihan, director of the Orange County Crime Lab.
In part of my research to write a recent cover story related to the Golden State Killer’s ties to Orange County, I read Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, true-crime reporting on the prolific serial murderer, and discovered a doozy that seemingly undermines Houlihan’s credibility in an ongoing forensic science scandal.
Near the top of page 103, McNamara reported that advances in DNA analysis in the late 1990s prompted crime lab officials here to thoroughly study each of the 2,479 homicides committed between 1972 and 1994.
Here is the key excerpt:
“A strategy was developed for reexamining cold cases,” McNamara recounted after interviews with the crime lab staff. “Homicides involving sexual assaults would be prioritized (my emphasis), as those killers tend to be repeat offenders and leave behind the kind of biological material that lends itself to DNA typing. Mary Hong was one of the criminalists tasked with concentrating on cold cases.”
That history is problematic for Houlihan and Hong. She gave conflicting scientific testimony to help prosecutors win two murder/rape trials out of Anaheim, People v. Lynn Dean Johnson and People v. Wendell Lemond. He vaguely tried to justify her contradiction.
Specifically, at Johnson’s 2008 trial, Hong testified that low quantity of semen left in a victim meant the time range of the deposit must have been zero to 24 hours before police collection at the crime scene, a stance that backed deputy DA Kevin Haskins’ aim to convict this defendant.
But 15 months later in Lemond, Hong flip-flopped without telling jurors. This time she opined that low quantity of semen meant a deposit likely happened at least 24 hours before collection, a stance that backed deputy DA Howard Gundy’s aim to convict his target and clear a second suspect the defense blamed.
When OC Weekly reported the discrepancies in 2016, Hong—who had taken a new job as director of two forensic science labs for the California Department of Justice—refused interview requests.
She also ignored Scott Sanders, the assistant public defender who represented Johnson at trial.
Given that crime lab officials like to portray themselves as neutral players in the criminal justice system, Sanders found himself flabbergasted that neither Hong nor Houlihan would answer questions even in the presence of his opponents inside Tony Rackauckas’ Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA).
Houlihan finally broke his silence a year-and-a-half into the controversy. In February, he granted The Orange County Register an interview to discredit the scandal by vouching for Hong’s dueling expert opinions. “The conclusion that Mary reached were consistent with the evidence,” he told the paper apparently without providing meaningful supporting evidence.
Sanders understandably had plenty of follow-up questions for the lab director, who’d gone back into hiding. For example, what specific steps had he taken to reach his exonerating conclusion? Had his agency launched a probe into whether faulty semen deposit opinions marred other murder/rape cases that nailed innocent defendants and left killer roaming the streets? What related records had been located? Given the potential high stakes, shouldn’t the search for truth outweigh bureaucratic coverup inclinations?
Earlier this year, deputy DA Avery Harrison suggested a search to answer Sanders’ questions would be overly burdensome for the crime lab. Houlihan’s lawyer, D. Kevin Dunn in the county counsel’s office, raised a more troubling argument. At an April hearing, Dunn also opposed a thorough records search, claiming that Hong’s testimony in the two cases had been previously deemed consistent.
Sanders’ proverbial jaw hit the floor upon hearing Dunn’s false assertion; in March he asked Superior Court Judge Julian Bailey to order Houlihan’s sworn testimony. Over the objections of Harrison and Dunn, Bailey initially agreed. But as months passed, the judge continually postponed the move.
Meanwhile, Houlihan reported what Harrison had already guessed: it would be overly burdensome for his office to fully comply with Sanders’ subpoena. “Because the records are not maintained by subject area and are not otherwise searchable, the records will need to be examined one-by-one by hand to determine if they contain potentially responsive records,” he declared.
Dunn supplemented the assertion, arguing the director faces a “vast universe of potentially responsive documents.”
But McNamara’s book seems to destroy the workload excuse.
Houlihan wouldn’t have to start from scratch studying each file in 3,500 banker boxes because in 1996 the crime lab reviewed all cases between 1972 and 1994 and prioritized creating a list of homicides involving sexual assaults, the timing and focus of Sanders’ inquiry.
Why didn’t the lab director tell Bailey about this list?
What new excuse will he and Dunn—who helped sheriff’s deputies hide embarrassing subpoenaed records in the Orange County jailhouse informant scandal—concoct for an Aug. 17 status report?
The California Court of Appeal is currently reviewing Johnson’s conviction.
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.