Acevedo Defends DNA Lab

Police chief says whistle-blower's accusations are overblown

Police Chief Art Acevedo
Police Chief Art Acevedo (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Austin Police Department Chief Art Acevedo was perturbed on July 16 when he called a press conference at the city's Eastside substation – also home to the department's forensics labs, including the DNA lab – to respond to the latest accusations made by former DNA lab employee Cecily Hamilton during a press conference the day before.

To recap: Hamilton worked at the lab for three years before leaving this spring, after making a string of complaints about poor training at the lab and poor working relationships between herself and other lab employees. Hamilton initially complained last fall about working conditions at the lab and then repeated those complaints in a February memo to supervisors. Each time, her complaints were investigated and found without merit. Notably, Hamilton had not complained about any poor science, techniques, or analysis at the lab – that is, not until last week when she told reporters that she did know of two separate cases of "contamination" at the lab, one that she handled (about which, oddly, she said she remembered no details) and a second involving the police shooting of Nathaniel Sanders II. "One [case] specifically that I remember is ... that there is contamination in the Nathaniel Sanders case," Hamilton told Austin's Fox 7.

As it turns out, there was contamination of a bag of marijuana found in the car after Sanders was shot in the parking lot of an East Austin apartment complex by former Officer Leonardo Quintana. That the sample was contaminated isn't all that surprising, however. It seems that the chemist testing the pot left DNA behind; when police later decided to check the bag for DNA, the chemist's imprint popped up, which led analysts to consider the entire test "inconclusive." That sort of outcome isn't uncommon in such a situation, and it had no impact on the inquiry into the shooting, Acevedo said Friday. More to the point, however, is that Hamilton would understand that as well. But she went ahead and tossed the Sanders and contamination bombs out there anyway to fan the flames, argued Acevedo. Her newest accusation was "very calculated," he said, and appeared designed only to tap into "fear in the community that police mishandled" the Sanders shooting case. "She knew ... exactly what happened but failed to tell members of the public" the whole story, he said.

Acevedo said he has asked the Texas Rangers to come in to conduct a complete investigation of each of Hamilton's accusations and said the department is still waiting for a final word from the Travis County District Attorney's Office about whom it has selected to do another, independent audit of lab operations.

(Also of note: Though we reported last week that the National Institute of Justice would be in town this week to do an already scheduled audit of genetic information put by APD into the nation's DNA database – the Combined DNA Index System – it turns out the feds won't actually be in town for that review until next week, beginning July 26.)

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

DNA lab, Cecily Hamilton, Austin Police Department, forensics, Art Acevedo, Travis County District Attorney

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