Authorities on Friday identified an ironworker with no criminal record as the suspect held in jail for four months in 1996 after the Houston Police Department’s troubled fingerprint analysis unit wrongly tied his fingerprint to a homicide, records show.
In July that year, two Houston fingerprint analysts identified Manuel Quinta Guerra’s fingerprint on a bloody fork found at the scene of a slaying in southwest Houston. The next day he was arrested, booked into the Harris County Jail and held on $20,000 bail. Guerra wasn’t released until December, when the FBI confirmed the print belonged to someone else, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which discussed the case Friday. The killing is still unsolved.
HPD leaders were not aware of the misidentification until the Houston Chronicle brought it to their attention this week.
The discovery raises questions about whether there could have been more misidentifications by the unit in the 1990s, although police say they don’t know of any.
It also focuses attention on whether the department’s review of fingerprint evidence spanning 2004-2009 should be expanded. It was launched after an audit last year found lab employees were missing viable fingerprints on evidence. Police say they know of no misidentifications except for Guerra’s, although they have identified vast technical errors in the unit’s analysis of fingerprints.
Fingerprint analyst Rafael Saldivar, one of the people responsible for the 1996 misidentification, received a reprimand this spring for destroying notes. He was also reprimanded in writing in 1997 for his role in the misidentification.
Police will not say whether they’ll expand the review of fingerprint evidence and declined comment Friday on Guerra, saying they were reviewing the case.
Guerra,who has lived at multiple addresses over the years, could not be immediately located. The defense attorney who represented him in the case has died.
Former roommate killed
Guerra, then 33, came under suspicion because he was a former roommate of Lawrence Perham, who was found choked and stabbed to death July 7, 1996, in the 5800 block of Dashwood, said Bill Hawkins, the prosecutor who dealt with the case.
The bloody fork — it’s not clear if it was a murder weapon – was the only object police could lift prints from.
Guerra voluntarily submitted his fingerprints as part of the homicide investigation on July 23, the same day that analysts misidentified a print found on the fork as his.
On July 24 he was arrested and booked, with bail set at $20,00. That’s where he stayed until the case was dismissed – he couldn’t afford the bail, court records show.
There were almost immediate questions about the analysis, according to documents provided by the District Attorney’s Office.
One police fingerprint examiner called the FBI for help and was told in October that there was no match. But he asked for a second opinion, and it was not until late November that officials finally decided Guerra was innocent, records show.
No other evidence
Guerra was released in December, and the murder charges were dismissed.
The print was the sole piece of evidence that supposedly tied Guerra to the slaying, said Hawkins, who added he didn’t know of another case of fingerprint misidentification.
"Its real unusual, and I’ve been here over 27 years," Hawkins said. "You have a situation where it’s someone known to the victims, but the case was filed based on the fingerprint identification."
The revelation of the case has prompted a trail of alarm from community leaders and defense attorneys this week, who questioned why the misidentification was not previously revealed to the community and urged police to look deeper.
District Attorney Pat Lykos also joined in the chorus of frustration, although she pointed to the positive.
"It’s absolutely distressing that that occurred," Lykos said Friday, "but the upside is the fact the examiners had qualms about their identification and pursued further testing. That’s the good news.