Judges: Move the Lab out of APD!

Court judiciary pens memo to Council, county commissioners

Judges: Move the Lab out of APD!
Illustration by Jason Stout / Thinkstock

The 15 county and district judges who make up Travis County’s Criminal Court Judiciary issued a memo on Monday unanimously recommending that the city’s currently shuttered forensics lab – currently run by the Austin Police Department – be removed from department control and reopened as an independent lab run in partnership between the city and county.

“We … believe that it is essential that the City of Austin and Travis County rely upon an independent lab for all forensic testing,” read the memo, delivered to Mayor Steve Adler, City Council, the Travis County Commissioners Court, and the Public Safety Commission. The judges said the recommendation came based on three considerations: national forensic best practices recommending that forensic investigations be independent of law enforcement; the damaged integrity of the APD DNA lab, compromised such that “future use is deemed unreliable”; and their determination that APD “has proven incapable of producing timely and reliable results.”

The police department announced the temporary closure of their DNA lab in June after an audit was performed by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. The FSC reported a wide array of problems, including unqualified lab workers and management, distorted quality assurance programs, and the use of unapproved DNA testing procedures.

In light of the audit’s findings, Adler, City Council, the District Attorney’s office, and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, among others, have been meeting to address the lab’s failures, resolve the growing backlogs of untested DNA evidence, and reopen a reliable testing facility. Together with APD and Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, the group is working to assemble a team of experts to review lab practices and assist Council in considering the benefits of an independent DNA lab.

Both the lab’s faulty forensics and current closure has caused quite a serious ripple effect throughout the city and county’s criminal justice system. Up to 5,000 people have potentially been convicted based on evidence processed by APD’s lab. According to judiciary's memo, “All of these convictions must be reviewed to determine if these convictions violated due process. All of of these convictions have the potential for post-conviction litigation, or, in other words, these cases might need to return to the trial courts for review, and might possibly need to be re-tried.”

These 5,000 cases include an estimated 1,000 mixture cases, 700 of which were tested at APD. Those numbers don’t include backlogs to the determinants blood testing and drug analysis obligations, either. The judges speculate that it may take six or more months before those cases are indicted.

“This causes a ripple effect throughout our system, including excessive pretrial detention, bond reductions due to delay, plea bargains for reduced charges, and, in some cases, dismissals,” wrote the judges.

Austin’s Public Safety Commission heard comment yesterday from APD Assistant Chief Troy Gay concerning the mounting DNA backlogs. Gay told commissioners that the department is expected to begin sending evidence to the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Science (SWIFS) in Dallas County soon; 100 batches will get sent to SWIFS every two weeks. Gay also told commissioners that the department can send 20 cases every 45 days to Signature Science, in Austin, and 20 more to the Department of Public Safety.

“We do plan within the first six months to have all the rape kits sent to SWIFS, and we anticipate that they will be analyzed and we’ll get the reports back within 12 months,” said Gay.

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