Harris has clashed with prosecutors in several cases

Updated: June 11, 2004, 12:24 PM ET
Associated Press

HOUSTON -- A DNA expert who clashed with Texas prosecutors before she opened her own forensics practice in California has been hired by attorneys defending NBA star Kobe Bryant against a rape charge.

Elizabeth Johnson worked in the DNA lab of the Harris County medical examiner's office from 1992 until 1996. Bryant's attorneys want her allowed to observe DNA testing in the high-profile case and are expected to call her as an expert witness once the trial begins.

Bryant, a Los Angeles Lakers star, has pleaded innocent to sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman in a Colorado hotel room last year, though he acknowledges having consensual sex with her. If convicted, he faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine up to $750,000.

Details of DNA testing in the case have not been disclosed. But defense attorneys say the woman had other sexual partners in the week during which she alleges that Bryant assaulted her.

Johnson frequently made news during her tenure as head of the county DNA lab, which she helped establish in 1992.

She performed tests on evidence in a double murder in Pasadena, Texas, contradicting the prosecution's theory about who committed the crime. The suspect eventually was acquitted.

She also found herself at odds with prosecutors in February 1996. The district attorney's office subpoenaed her to appear -- along with her files in five criminal cases -- before a grand jury.

The files were subsequently turned over to another DNA expert who reviewed Johnson's techniques. No problems with her methodology were reported.

Johnson said she always attempts to do quality work.

"And not because anybody in particular has some money," she told the Houston Chronicle for Friday editions. "I try to do the best job possible on every case. Most of my clients are represented by public defenders, and I don't think I got to where I am by giving them a slipshod job."

Johnson was fired from the medical examiner's office in December 1996. She was later awarded a judgment of more than $300,000 by a Harris County jury for wrongful termination.

Johnson claimed she was fired because of the Pasadena case, though Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said she was let go because she wanted too much time off as compensation for hours worked.

Johnson's role in another Texas murder case has also been called into question by supporters of the defendant.

Rodney Reed, 35, was sentenced to die for the 1996 murder of a 19-year-old Bastrop County woman. His supporters say there is no record Johnson tested certain DNA samples in the case; the Austin Chronicle has reported that shipping labels the Texas Department of Public Safety says were used to send evidence to Johnson's laboratory in Ventura, Calif., do not match records kept by the shipping company.

Johnson told the Austin paper she couldn't recall whether she had tested the DNA samples, but that DPS sent everything the defense had asked for.

A volunteer consultant for Reed, David Fisher, contends DNA samples that could have provided exculpatory evidence to Reed's attorneys were not tested. He said he has contacted prosecutors in the Bryant case to point out Johnson's role in the Reed case.

"Elizabeth Johnson is stained by the Bastrop case," Fisher told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month. "The Eagle County prosecutors are very disturbed by what they have learned."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press