Did Failures at APD’s Crime Lab Lead to Sexual Assaults in Houston?
Rape case goes unprosecuted due to contaminated DNA evidence
The man accused of committing the rape responsible in part for shutting down Austin Police's crime lab was, until Tuesday, in custody in Harris County, where he's been charged with the sexual assault of two other individuals. Both assaults were committed recently – in 2014 and this year – well after the rape that occurred in Austin, and well after APD first began to struggle with its examination and analysis of the evidence gathered from that rape.
The accused's name is Lloyd Tyrone Robinson. He is 39, from Houston. In Aug. 2009, he was arrested for the Oct. 12, 2008, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated kidnapping of a woman, cited (as a pseudonym) in affidavits as Amy Smith. According to Smith, she was walking Downtown after bars closed that Tuesday morning when Robinson drove up in a rented white Chrysler 300, stopped the car, got out, and threw Smith into the back seat. He drove her to the Drury Inn & Suites at 6711 N. I-35 and raped her. Eventually, he agreed to let her go. While he was driving her to an undisclosed location in Northeast Austin, Smith jumped out of Robinson's rental and ran. (Smith could not do the same on their way to the hotel because she was thrown into the backseat, and child safety locks were engaged.) Smith made contact with a driver who transported her to St. David's Medical Center, where she completed a forensic exam and met with police.
An APD bulletin went out to patrolling officers: Smith had told investigators to look for a black male in a Chrysler 300 or Dodge Charger. Officer Todd Galbraith located a vehicle matching the description in the parking lot of a Super 8 hotel on the interstate, a mile-and-a-half north of the Drury Inn. Rodrigo Lopez (also a pseudonym) was tied to the car. Though he was Hispanic, police still questioned Lopez, who said that he was at the Super 8 having sex with a different woman identified as Erica. Lopez consented to penile and buccal swabs; police took bedsheets, a towel, and Lopez's underwear for testing. Since Lopez did not match Smith's description and no evidence was found that could link him to the crime, he was released from the scene.
Smith reminded investigators that her attacker was African-American, yet evidence from Lopez's detainment still got sent to APD's crime lab on Springdale Road. Curiously, the cell fraction from Lopez's penile swabs indicated the presence of three DNA profiles: Lopez's, Smith's, and that of an unknown third individual, concluded later to be Erica's. When lab workers tested the sperm fraction extracted from Smith's vaginal swab, a DNA profile presented a mixture of two people: Smith and an unknown male. Lopez was rightly excluded from Smith's swab.
On Feb. 10, 2009, four months after Smith was raped, the Department of Public Safety ran a CODIS (Combined DNA Index System, a national database of DNA profiles) test on the sperm fraction evidence showing Smith's presence and that of an unknown male, eventually matched to Lloyd Tyrone Robinson. Robinson, then 32, carried a long record, one built mostly in Harris County. In 1999, he was convicted on burglary charges; while under supervision on that charge he pled no contest to charges of marijuana possession. He also did more than a year in jail after getting picked up on forgery charges. He is the subject of the 2004 Houston Press story "The Prince of Perjury Palace," which details the lies he told in front of a Harris County judge during a custody battle.
A warrant went out for Robinson's arrest on April 2, 2009. He was booked into Travis County Jail on April 29 and bailed out on April 30 through a $150,000 bond from John Zavala of Around the Clock Bail Bonds, after submitting a buccal swab sample of his DNA. On May 13, Zavala signed a motion to withdraw his bond to Robinson. In two weeks, Robinson had completely cut off contact. On June 3, he bonded out again, after posting $150,000. (The signature on the personal bond is not legible.) Later that October, he was served with an order to provide Travis County's crime lab with a sample of his DNA.
Robinson would never go to trial for that case. On Oct. 10, 2013, four years after Smith was raped, Robinson saw both of his charges dismissed. The Travis County District Attorney's Office signed the motion "pending further investigation."
"A Number of Red Flags"
According to a July audit conducted by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, a nine-member body of scientists and attorneys that oversees and offers accreditation to crime labs throughout the state, the Austin Police Department's Forensic Science Division shut down in June because of a number of issues pertaining to the way the lab was working. Particularly, the commission presented four problems "specific to the APD DNA lab," including the lab's insistence on using certain statistical tools of measurement no other lab in the state was using, a general ignorance of directions to do things like make new batches of SERI Acid Phosphatase daily, and "leadership and training issues" that included a Technical Leader who was "not a proficiency-tested DNA analyst in the technologies being utilized in the laboratory."
The fourth reason – labeled Contamination Events – deals directly with Robinson's case from 2008. Though he's not named in the audit, FSC's explanation of the issue provides specific details about the case, many of which line up with those discussed in Robinson's affidavits – such as that APD initially apprehended a Hispanic male for a crime that took place in a hotel, based partly on the victim's description of his car, despite the victim having reported that her assailant was African-American. The audit discusses "possible carryover contamination" ("possible," the commission writes, only because 100% is a number seldom used in forensic science) from the victim's known DNA from a vaginal swab to another sample – the penile swab belonging to "a person of interest who was later excluded" – tested at the same time.
The FSC presents a series of concerns about the case, particularly with the way in which carryover contamination occurred between Smith's known DNA (from her vaginal swab) and the DNA extracts found within the penile swab taken from Lopez, which carried the DNA of both Smith and one other person (Erica's, as previously noted). Most likely, the commission wrote, contamination took place during the analytical process, when the two samples were "immediately adjacent" to each other despite the rape kit sample containing 174 times more DNA than the penile swab taken from Lopez. (The commission notes that "some laboratories" run "high plates" like Smith's rape kit "separately" from "low plates" to minimize the effects of contamination.) The commission also commented on the general lack of urgency APD's lab exhibited after first being presented with concerns of possible contamination.
According to the FSC, the D.A.'s Office raised concerns about the case as early as 2009. APD's case file, however, "provides no documentation that questions were raised by the DA's office or vetted by the APD DNA Section."
Two Rapes in Houston
On Oct. 8, 2013, two days before Robinson's initial case was dismissed, APD obtained and executed a search warrant for a new buccal swab from the primary suspect. That sample was taken back to the APD forensic lab. A report issued May 13, 2014, indicated that Robinson's DNA was a major contributor to the vaginal swab taken from Smith the day of her rape. He was arrested again in early June 2014 and charged for a second time with aggravated kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault.
Robinson posted bond on June 10, 2014, one week after submitting another sample of DNA. Since then, he's stayed out of the presence of the Travis County Sheriff's Office. But three weeks ago, in Houston on Sunday, Sept. 11, he was arrested and booked into the Harris County Jail on two charges of sexual assault. According to court records, Robinson has been charged with nonconsensually conducting oral sex on a man on March 22, 2014, three months prior to his second arrest in Travis County. Two years later, on April 11, 2016, while out on bail for his charges in Travis County, he and a friend allegedly raped a 21-year-old Houston woman.
As of Tuesday evening, Robinson was still in the Harris County Jail, but by Wednesday his name no longer appeared in the jail's inmate database, suggesting he posted bond. At press time, a rep for the Harris County Sheriff's Office was checking on Robinson's status. He has a court date in Harris County's 339th District Court scheduled for Nov. 1.
Back in Travis County, sources close to Robinson's case are hoping that his present incarceration in Harris County will help move him toward a trial. It's been eight years since Smith's rape. The case has now sat on the dockets of three courts. Travis County has a capias warrant out, requesting Robinson be returned in time for his pre-trial hearing, but there remain few indications that the case will barrel forward to trial. The District Attorney's Office declined to comment on any prosecutorial delays or holdups, but a defense attorney familiar with the case explained it would be "very, very difficult" to try the case: "They won't be able to get past the problems in evidence collection and contamination."
Another person with close knowledge of the case provided a more blunt assessment: "It's everybody's hot potato. Nobody wants to try it."
This story has been amended to clarify the police department's reported reasons for the APD forensic lab shutdown.