HOUSTON — Nanon Williams was arrested here in 1992 when he was 17 years old for the crime of capital murder. He was sentenced to death in 1995. He is on death row today because of the testimony of the Houston Police Department (HPD) crime lab.

In 1998, the court allowed independent firearms testing, which conclusively proved that the bullet that killed the victim was not fired by Williams. In 2000 the trial court recommended relief for him due to ineffective counsel, since his attorney failed to perform any ballistics testing. In 2002 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the recommendation. Williams’ case is now on appeal in federal district court.

About 40 people held a “Free Nanon Williams” protest at the Houston City Hall reflection pool Aug. 1 to observe Williams’ 30th birthday. One speaker declared that “it is an atrocity to sentence minors to death row.” She also pointed out that Williams was an indigent African American teenager at the time of the conviction. She noted that the “execution machine is constantly killing people” and “children are beaten out of reason and starved” while in prison. She reported, however, that while on death row, Williams’ “revolutionary spirit has grown.”

Another speaker declared, “The [police department] crime lab is the criminal in this case.”

Protesters read birthday greetings from Williams’ supporters around the world, and ate birthday cake and ice cream. The participants, both children and adults, “beat the justice” out of a Texas-shaped piñata intended to represent the HPD crime lab.

Williams’ case has captured the attention of Amnesty International, which has publicly opposed his execution. They point out his punishment violates a fundamental principle of international law. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is a treaty that bans the imposition of the death penalty against child offenders. Only the U.S. and Somalia have failed to ratify this treaty.

The HPD crime lab has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism lately. Forensic experts have characterized the HPD’s findings in a number of cases as “scientifically unsound.” An Aug. 8 editorial in the Houston Chronicle posed the question, “How many cases of incompetent analysis must come to light before an independent inquiry is made to detect and correct miscarriages of justice?”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.