Audits Ahead for APD Crime Labs

Forensics lab to onboard new director, plus SARRT letter

A photo of the presumed mold covering a rape kit from APD's evidence warehouse
A photo of the presumed mold covering a rape kit from APD's evidence warehouse (Photo provided by Gregg Cox)

Finally, a full year after the Austin Police Department shuttered its DNA lab due to out-of-date procedures and unqualified analysts, department officials have tapped a third party to run an audit on the five remaining crime labs currently in operation.

The National Forensic Science and Technology Center will manage each audit for the blood alcohol toxicology, controlled substances, crime scene, latent prints, and firearms and toolmark labs. APD Commander Mike Eveleth, who’s overseen the forensics unit since December, told the Chronicle that reviews should last a month or two, and are expected to begin before the end of July.

Operating contracts for the audit are still getting worked out. The Florida-based company has a 15-year history of working with forensic labs across the country, and was instrumental in reestablishing credibility to the troubled labs in both Dallas and Houston. Eveleth commended APD’s executive staff for green-lighting the audits as part of a broader effort to rectify the lab’s longstanding issues.

In addition to the audit, APD will soon hire a new lab director to succeed Scott Milne, who was suspended in December (and eventually resigned in April) after APD looked into his academic credentials and decided they were not up to the department’s standards. Eveleth said all new applicants must hold a master’s degree in the field of science, with preference given to a Ph.D. He added that he will continue working closely with the forensics unit at least until the new hire is trained and able to hire an assistant. In the interim, he said he plans to continue efforts to clear the backlog of evidence, the bulk of which includes untested rape kits.

That backlog has stood at the forefront of most crime lab discussions since last June. Emily LeBlanc, who co-chairs the Austin-Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT) told Chronicle that she visited with Eveleth on Friday and toured the evidence warehouse where the kits recently in the news for reportedly growing mold on their exteriors are being stored. LeBlanc reported seeing less cause for concern than previously suspected, and said that a scientist is expected to test the dust-like substance found on the kits to determine if it is in fact mold. LeBlanc called APD’s creation of the new director position encouraging and said, “for the first time, I feel like the numbers [of kits and cases] finally add up.” As of last week, 882 rape kits have been tested and returned, while another 1,134 have been sent out to labs such as Signature Science and Sorenson Forensics for testing. Another 1,912 untested rape kits await shipment for testing.

On Wednesday, prior to her visiting the warehouse, LeBlanc and SARRT co-chair Dana Nelson (who was the District Attorney’s sex crimes liaison under Rosemary Lehmberg and was forced out upon Margaret Moore’s arrival in January) issued a strongly worded letter to Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano and county executive for justice and public safety Roger Jefferies that decried APD’s lack of transparency about the reported mold as “unacceptable,” and accused Moore of heading a criminal justice system that “condones rape and does not hold perpetrators, or itself, accountable.” Moore disputed those accusations to the Statesman last Thursday, defending her office’s devotion to serving survivors. LeBlanc told the Chronicle that the letter’s purpose was to request that SARRT hold a seat on the soon-to-be-created working group designed to advise lab stakeholders moving forward. “We never intended to hurt anyone’s feelings,” said LeBlanc. “But it’s time for victims to have a voice.”

On Monday, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt confirmed that she and interim City Manager Elaine Hart will be responsible for curating the committee. As a former family violence prosecutor, she said she “absolutely” plans on including someone from the family violence survival community, but wants “stakeholders that will be real partners.”

She added: “I’m not interested in talking about whose fault it is and who’s the most pure and unsullied here. I want to get it fixed.”

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APD Crime Lab, Mike Eveleth, Dana Nelson, Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team, Emily LeBlanc, Sarah Eckhardt, Margaret Moore

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