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Another Charge of Negligence at APD's Crime Lab

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Jan. 20, 2012

A former employee of the Austin Police Department crime lab has filed a formal complaint with Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, alleging irregularities in drug testing procedures – including that at times reports have been issued before any actual forensic drug analysis has been done. "I believe that scientific evidence should be accurate and reliable when used against defendants charged in criminal cases," wrote former lab employee Debra Stephens in a December letter to Lehmberg.

In the letter, Stephens writes that she believes she was terminated (last spring) for raising questions about lab procedures and the qualifications of some personnel. It's the second time in as many years that a former employee at the lab has complained about possible deficiencies there and alleged retaliation for raising questions about lab operations. In 2010, former DNA lab employee Cecily Hamilton questioned the qualifications of personnel in that portion of the lab; subsequent audits of lab operations gave its operations a clean bill of health.

While APD Assistant Chief Sean Mannix at a press conference discounted Stephens' claims and described her as an "angry former employee," defense attorneys are concerned that there may be some merit to her allegations. The 2005 introduction of a "rocket docket" for low-level drug cases created a need for swift test results from the crime lab. Stephens wrote to Lehmberg that based on a review of cases, she would "estimate that there are hundreds of other cases dating back to 2005 that were analyzed without regard to laboratory protocols in 'rush' case requests."

Lehmberg released information about the allegations to the criminal defense bar and has asked the Department of Public Safety to review the forensic concerns. In a letter dated Jan. 6, D. Pat Johnson, deputy assistant director of the DPS crime lab, disagreed with Stephens' argument that certain APD lab personnel are not qualified, though he did find two cases where it doesn't appear testing was done before a "preliminary report" was emailed to prosecutors, and said there may be additional documents that need to be reviewed. In a press release, Lehmberg's office says the DPS is requesting additional documentation. "The public's confidence is our highest priority," she said.

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