DNA Lab to Be Put Under Microscope

An upcoming audit of APD's lab could be just the beginning

Auditors with the National Institute of Justice will be in Austin over the next few weeks giving the Austin Police Department's DNA lab a once-over. Specifically, they're looking into the lab's use of the nation's Combined DNA Index System, as part of a visit already on the calendar when complaints about the lab by a former employee, Cecily Hamilton, hit the news last week. Those allegations may lead to another independent audit. And though Hamilton doesn't imply that any mistakes were made at the lab, prosecutors are bracing for the worst.

Hamilton worked at the APD's lab for three years before leaving earlier this year. In a lengthy memo written in February to supervisors, Hamilton makes a laundry list of complaints about the lab – but, notably, makes no complaints about the actual scientific work done by its analysts. Instead, in addition to complaining that training for employees is lacking, she focuses primarily on personnel issues at the lab – and, seemingly, her personal conflicts with various employees that she alleges made the lab a "hostile work environment."

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said that Hamilton first complained about lab practices last fall and that her allegations had been investigated and deemed unfounded. She repeated her concerns in February, and they were again reviewed, he said. Police briefed the Travis County District Attorney's Office about the Hamilton complaints in June. Notably, Hamil­ton has not complained about the quality of the DNA work done at the lab – she's made no complaints regarding the quality of the "science ... the techniques ... or the analysis" done by scientists, said Ed Harris, who supervises the APD's labs. Nor has she made any allegations about faulty work in any particular case, said Acevedo.

The lab, which opened in 2005, has never failed any of its audits, which are conducted by both the FBI and the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. Nonethe­less, Harris said, APD has asked the Travis County District Attorney's Office to select a company or individual of their choosing to come in and conduct another audit. Harris said he's waiting to hear who the D.A. will choose.

John Neal, first assistant Travis County district attorney, said prosecutors have begun to notify all defense attorneys in pending criminal cases about the allegations and are now considering the logistics of how to notify defendants who have already been convicted in cases that involve work done at the APD lab. He said the office has consulted with three longtime local defense attorneys – Sam Bas­sett, David Sheppard, and Betty Black­well – about how to handle notifications. What effect, if any, Hamilton's allegations will have on the day-to-day workings of the criminal justice system remains to be seen.

Acevedo said he believes that in the end the lab will get another clean bill of health but that accusations about integrity are always serious business: "The lab has never had a problem," he said. "But this is important to us, which is why we're taking it so seriously."

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Austin Police Department DNA lab, Combined DNA Index System, Cecily Hamilton, John Neal

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