APD Shuts Down Effort to Reopen Crime Lab
Interim Chief Manley: "We recognize the failure in our lab. We're taking responsibility, and pushing forward."
The Austin Police Department has officially ceased all operations geared toward reopening its DNA and Serology lab, Interim Police Chief Brian Manley announced in a press conference Friday afternoon. "We have failed in the area that's under question now," said Manley. The interim chief told reporters that the department will no longer proceed with plans to hire eight additional lab staff, and will no longer need the $1.4 million that had been approved for those hires by City Council in this year's fiscal budget.
Manley's announcement marked a significant development in what's been a disastrous six months for APD and its DNA lab, which closed in June after an audit from the Texas Forensic Science Commission revealed a hefty list of longstanding issues: unapproved DNA testing procedures, inaccurate quality assurance methods, unqualified lab technicians and management, and clear signs of contaminated evidence. The list of oversights has only continued to grow as more information about the lab's troubles has made its way into public knowledge. On Nov. 30, the Austin American-Statesman reported that an eight-day-long malfunction with a freezer containing hundreds of affected DNA samples had occurred – lab staff reportedly chose not to alert any other organizations within the criminal justice system because they were "unsure whether heat had damaged critical evidence in pending cases."
Lab technicians were beyond repair. On Dec. 12, after a series of failed efforts to retrain select members of APD's forensics staff, Texas Department of Public Safety Deputy Assistant Director Brady Mills delivered a letter to the District Attorney's office stating that four of the six APD technicians receiving DPS training would not continue to receive instruction. Manley said Friday that APD does not yet know what it plans to do with the two who are set to continue with retraining. "After training, we'll decide what role they'll play in any work with APD under DPS supervision," he said.
Both Austin and Travis County must now approve an interlocal agreement to conduct the required science and legal reviews of APD's lab and the cases already tried using the department's forensic evidence. It remains unclear how much money these reviews will cost both entities, but estimates show that the legal review alone could range from $6.6 million to $14 million over the course of the next five to 10 years. Residents are expected to foot that bill through taxes, though grants could potentially offset the cost. The science review should address what went wrong at APD's lab and ultimately determine how to move forward, while the legal review will work to identify any wrongful convictions brought on by faulty evidence. Trudy Strassburger, deputy director of Capital Area Private Defender Service, told county commissioners on Dec. 13 that up to 5,000 cases could potentially be affected by the DNA lab's incompetence.
Manley said on Friday that Michael Eveleth, who previously oversaw APD's homicide unit, has been made commander of the department's forensics unit. The lab will continue to operate its blood work, chemistry, ballistics, and fingerprints sections. Eveleth replaces Scott Milne, who had been hired as chief forensics officer to assist with the DNA lab's reopening, and to oversee the aforementioned sections that are still working, but was soon found to be unqualified. Despite holding a degree in science, "he did not have the qualifications that I want running the parts [of the lab] still operating," said the interim chief.
Manley concluded Friday's news dump with a disconcerting update regarding APD's partnership with Dallas County's Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences (SWIFS). APD had been set to begin sending 484 backlogged rape kits collected over the past two years to Dallas for DNA testing as recently as Nov. 3. However, Manley reported that "lots of places" are currently using SWIFS right now, including the Travis County D.A.'s office. The Dallas lab has requested that APD only send 20 cases per month, which will not "assist us in clearing the backlog or keeping up with current cases," said Manley. "We are actively looking within the science community for a solution to the current cases."
Currently, no timetable exists for when the DNA lab will reopen or if a new lab will open at all. (Speculation has it now that APD may try to enter into a working agreement to send its future incoming evidence – and some salary money for technicians – to DPS.) While the county has already approved both the scientific and legal studies of APD's lab, the city has yet to approve the request. Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano spoke briefly on Friday after Manley to say he hopes to have the interlocal agreement in place by the end of January.
Manley was adamant about APD's determination to put a system in place that "works best for our community and the criminal justice system. ... We recognize the failure in our lab. [We're] taking responsibility, and pushing forward."