DNA samples in Travis County cases will undergo extra scrutiny

FILE - Blood samples being tested at APD's DNA lab. (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Blood samples being tested at APD's DNA lab. (KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The abrupt closure of the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab will impact cases that are moving through the Travis County court system.

On Monday, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office said they have hired a leading expert in forensic DNA to review all casework by the APD DNA lab before the plea or trial of pending cases.

Last week, APD suspended operations at its DNA lab after an audit conducted by the Texas Forensic Science Commission determined the lab did not have enough properly trained staff. The report also indicated the lab was not up to date on standard protocols.

The audit, which was conducted over a 3-day period in May and June, focused on the lab’s DNA analysis assessment and a review of the lab’s forensic biology operations.

Since 2010, the lab had been using a testing standard that “is neither scientifically valid nor supported by the forensic DNA community,” according to the report. The Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods (SWGDAM) recommended in 2010 that DNA labs implement a dual threshold when testing evidence, APD’s lab only used one.

After the director of the DNA lab passed away in April, Chief of Police Art Acevedo says the department has struggled with the standards. “Our science team made a decision to stay with one standard when the rest of the state moved to another standard and quite frankly we aren’t going to be an island unto ourselves. We are going to follow, as long as I’m chief, the standards that the scientific community has agreed to,” says Acevedo in a news conference on Friday.

The team conducting the audit also observed potential “carry-over contamination” in the DNA samples. In one example, the analyst reported a three-person mixture in a sample, but when the sample was retested by another laboratory, the results “indicated a two-person mixture.”

While the lab remains shuttered, the lab’s management team is working to re-train and re-qualify its analysts to acceptable standards. The department is also in the process of hiring a new scientist to run the crime lab. If all goes well, Acevedo says he expects the Texas Forensic Science Commission to allow the department to reopen their DNA lab in four to six months.

In the meantime, hundreds of DNA samples will be sent to private labs or to the Texas Department of Public Safety to be tested. Those chosen to be transferred will be determined by how critical the case is.

“I’m going to ensure, and I think the DA will ensure, that we make it a priority to look at any prior cases to make sure that no innocent person has been convicted and to make sure that no wanted criminal has escaped the long arm justice of the law because of any type of abnormalities or deviation of standard practices or best practices,” says Acevedo.

The Texas Forensic Commission can offer additional observations and recommendations of the lab at its July 8 meeting. A comprehensive report will follow after the meeting.

 

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