Crime Lab: Evidence of Improvement?
Audits on active forensic labs expected to begin before July's end
Finally, a full year after the Austin Police Department shuttered its DNA lab due to out-of-date procedures and unqualified analysts, department officials have tapped a third party to run an audit on the five remaining crime labs currently in operation – those for blood alcohol/toxicology, controlled substances, crime scene, latent prints, and firearm and tool mark. The National Forensic Science Technology Center will manage each audit. APD Commander Mike Eveleth, who's overseen the forensics unit since December, told the Chronicle that reviews should last a month or two, and are expected to begin before the end of July.
Operating contracts for the audit are still getting worked out. The Florida-based company has a 15-year history of working with forensic labs across the country, and was instrumental in re-establishing credibility to the troubled labs in both Dallas and Houston. Eveleth commended APD's executive staff for green-lighting the audits as part of a broader effort to rectify the lab's longstanding issues.
In addition to the audit, APD will soon hire a new lab director to succeed Scott Milne, who was suspended in December (and eventually resigned in April) after APD looked into his academic credentials and decided they were not up to the department's standards. Eveleth said all new applicants must hold a master's degree in the field of science, with preference given to a Ph.D. He added that he will continue working closely with the forensics unit at least until the new hire is trained and able to hire an assistant. In the interim, he said he plans to continue efforts to clear the backlog of evidence, the bulk of which includes untested rape kits.
That backlog has stood at the forefront of most crime lab discussions since last June. Emily LeBlanc, who co-chairs the Austin-Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT) told the Chronicle that she visited with Eveleth on Friday and toured the evidence warehouse where the kits recently in the news for reportedly growing mold on their exteriors are being stored. LeBlanc reported seeing less cause for concern than previously suspected, and said that a scientist is expected to test the dustlike substance found on the kits to determine if it is in fact mold. LeBlanc called APD's creation of the new director position encouraging and said, "For the first time, I feel like the numbers [of kits and cases] finally add up." As of last week, 882 rape kits have been tested and returned, while another 1,134 have been sent out to labs such as Signature Science and Sorenson Forensics for testing. Another 1,912 untested rape kits await shipment for testing.
Last Wednesday, prior to her visiting the warehouse, LeBlanc and SARRT co-chair Dana Nelson (the district attorney's sex crimes liaison under Rosemary Lehmberg who was forced out upon Margaret Moore's arrival in January) issued a strongly worded letter to Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano and Justice & Public Safety County Executive Roger Jefferies that decried APD's lack of transparency about the reported mold as "unacceptable," and accused Moore of heading a criminal justice system that "condones rape and does not hold perpetrators, or itself, accountable." Moore disputed those accusations to the Statesman a day later, defending her office's devotion to serving survivors. LeBlanc told the Chronicle that the letter's purpose was to request that SARRT hold a seat on the soon-to-be-created working group designed to advise lab stakeholders moving forward. "We never intended to hurt anyone's feelings," said LeBlanc. "But it's time for victims to have a voice."
On Monday, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt confirmed that she and interim City Manager Elaine Hart will be responsible for curating the committee. As a former family violence prosecutor, she said she "absolutely" plans on including someone from the family violence survival community, but wants "stakeholders that will be real partners."
She added, "I'm not interested in talking about whose fault it is and who's the most pure and unsullied here. I want to get it fixed."
The crime lab was at issue during Tuesday's meeting of County Commissioners. A contract with the University of North Texas' DNA lab, overseen by state Forensic Science Commissioner Dr. Bruce Budowle, is currently pending with the city, and will likely go to Council in August for approval. Should it pass through, the Denton lab will begin reviewing evidence from cases flagged by the Capital Area Private Defender Service. APD Assistant Chief Troy Gay said the department is negotiating a contract with the University of Pennsylvania Law School's Quattrone Center to handle the lab's root-cause analysis, and hopes to get that started by early fall.
Before that there were some fireworks: Commissioner Jeff Travillion walked out a few minutes into the update when Eckhardt asked him to hold questions until the end. He later apologized, saying the issue was "personal." He requested that civil rights groups be included in both the working group and overseeing the materiality review process. Eckhardt and Moore agreed, but did not clarify when those groups will be formed.