APD’s backlog on cases mount as lab remains shuttered

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) — As the Austin Police Department continues to work on fixing the problems identified at its currently shuttered DNA lab, KXAN News has learned the Travis County District Attorney’s Office has sent out 998 Brady notices for cases that have already gone to trial in relation to the DNA mixture results. The Brady Act requires the prosecution to disclose any information or material that could potentially impact a defendant’s case.

Out of the nearly 1,000 notices that were sent out, 652 of the notices were sent to inmates who are currently incarcerated in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison, six of whom are on death row. To date, 204, including the death row inmates, have requested re-interpretation of the DNA samples related to their case.

On Friday, the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association sent out a statement stating APD has known about the lab “taking shortcuts” for years. According to the association, a lab employee “blew the whistle about the lab’s failures” but nothing was done and the employee was fired.

“Re-training is not going to address the issue of personnel who were cutting corners, who were allowing for cross-contamination, who knowingly were not using the proper protocol or even the most up-to-date protocol,” Kellie Bailey, former president of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association said. “[Austin police] were allowing their [DNA] agents to have expired weeks after. Those people need to be terminated.”

In June, 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.

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.

APD’s Chief of Staff Brian Manley says they recognize they were not using best practices. “We want to make sure that when we open back up where a better lab for having gone through this there a lot of lessons to be learned here,”says Manley. He also admitted the department’s check and balances did not work.

The Travis County DA’s Office has identified, so far, nearly 1,400 DNA cases since the mid-1980s that might have been compromised by how the APD lab was testing and analyzing DNA mixtures. The DA’s Office says some of the cases resulted in convictions and some in deferred adjudications.

After its July meeting, the Texas Forensic Commission issued a comprehensive report consisting of 415 pages on APD’s DNA Lab. During the audit, the team observed that “analysts lacked understanding regarding important quality assurance procedures.” The Commission determined that a refresher training in basic molecular biology, forensic genetics and statistics will be critical in moving the laboratory forward.

In order to move forward and reopen the lab, the Commission recommended a long list of items the APD DNA Lab will need to do. Some of the biggest items revolve around hiring qualified staff. The Commissions says the department should conduct a national search for a permanent Technical Leader and that person should have at least a Master’s degree in biology, chemistry or forensic science. Every analyst in the APD DNA Lab should also go through a new training program and competency test.

Police say their goal is to have the lab back open by February 2017, but not before they conduct another full audit to make sure they got things right.

“This is not a position we want to be at as an agency but we are here we’re going to make sure that we come out on the other end of this better for this ensuring best practices that other labs as well will be in pulling best practices based on what we’ve learned,” Manley says.

Current Backlog

Manley says the department has 1,253 cases that are currently backlogged that need to be tested for DNA. Six-hundred of these cases are sexual assault cases. That number also includes 388 property crime cases that will also need to be processed along with 265 other cases that are related to other crimes against people.

The department says the reason the forensics lab got so jammed up was because of a capacity issue. The lab opened in 2004, by 2007, they had 639 requests for DNA analysis. By 2013, the lab had 1,471 requests—this was also the year the department started collecting DNA in property crime cases.

From 2010-2014, the lab employed five DNA analysts, two additional analysts were added in October 2014. An analyst’s average caseload is about 10 cases a month, so for five years, the lab’s total capacity every month was 50 cases a month.

“That’s how we ended with a backlog and the position we’re in,” says Manley.

As the lab remains closed, APD is farming out its cases to the Texas Department of Public Safety. DPS agreed to process 20 cases per month. In order to move things along, the department is also utilizing private labs.

On KXAN News on the CW Austin at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., hear from a family who says these potential mistakes are impacting them directly.

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