APD's DNA Lab Shutters

Department must change its operating procedures

FSC attorney Lynn Garcia suggests that issues at APD's crime lab were longstanding
FSC attorney Lynn Garcia suggests that issues at APD's crime lab were longstanding (by fsc.texas.gov)

The Austin Police Department will operate without the use of its own DNA lab for the next four to six months. As the department scrambles to get on board with a few standard operating procedures that recently brought the lab under the scrutiny of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, it will need to outsource any new cases plus a backlog of 1,300 cases to crime labs throughout the region.

Last week, Police Chief Art Acevedo noted that the shutdown was strictly voluntary, though conceding that it arrived as a result of ongoing conversations the department has had with FSC "for several months." (FSC representatives made two recent visits to APD's Eastside lab in late May and early June.) Acevedo attributed the shutdown in part to the death of the lab's latest supervisor – who worked in a supervisory role for 22 months, the bulk of the last six spent on family and medical leave, before he died of cancer – saying that the department is already making efforts to find a new scientist to lead the Biology and DNA division. He called the shutdown "an inconvenience" that "could present some problems."

"We need to have our own crime lab," Ace­vedo said. "If you don't have your own crime lab, you are not masters of your own destiny in terms of prioritizing your own cases."

APD's plan right now is to send case samples to both the crime lab at the Department of Public Safety and to private labs around Central Texas, with priority placed on cases that involve homicides, sexual assaults, and "cases that pose an immediate threat to the public."

A letter issued Friday from FSC attorney Lynn Garcia and presiding officer Vincent Di Maio suggests that issues at APD's crime lab were longstanding. Since 2010, it said, lab scientists "misunderstood the language" of two necessary guidelines of DNA evidence to use an "ineffective" method of assessing whether or not to amplify certain pieces of DNA evidence. The lab employed an observationally based method of DNA study known as "quant-based stochastic threshold" – that is, the criteria used to determine if DNA evidence should be amplified was not primarily rooted in actual data points – an error of practice the FSC deemed "neither scientifically valid nor supported by the forensic DNA community."

The letter noted that APD's use of these arbitrary thresholds was the primary reason for the site assessment. Garcia and Di Maio said that while some labs around the country use two thresholds – one observational and another based on analytical data – FSC has identified "no other laboratory in Texas, or elsewhere" that chose a quant-based ST after the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods first recommended using analytical data points in 2010. Further, they wrote, the analysts at APD's lab "were aware the quant-based ST was ineffective."

The FSC found other issues as well, including reported data being incorrectly stored, incorrectly prepared dilutions, routine deviations from pre-established industry protocols, documentation failures, and inconsistencies with how evidence was matched between suspects and victim reference profiles. The five-page letter suggested that more recommendations could be coming after the commissioners' quarterly meeting on July 9.

Garcia and Di Maio wrote that the FSC was already aware of the temporary shutdown when it issued its letter Friday, and commended the department for beginning the process of arranging for new lab leadership: "This proactive approach should allow the APD DNA Lab to emerge as a strong forensic DNA laboratory in the long-term," they wrote.

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