AUSTIN (KXAN) — The closure of the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab has created a problem within the Travis Criminal Justice System. KXAN has learned DNA in violent crimes such as sexual assault and murder are not being analyzed in a timely manner.
The delay has led to some criminal cases being delayed or dismissed including a sexual assault case with the suspect sitting in jail for a year waiting for DNA results that would not be analyzed on time. The suspect’s case was dismissed last month after the Travis County Judge presiding over the case denied the prosecution’s plea to extend the wait time in order to get the DNA results back from the DPS crime lab. The DPS crime lab agreed to handle some of APD’s cases now that the department doesn’t have a lab.
On Monday morning, a murder case impacted by the delay in DNA testing unfolded in Judge Jim Coronado’s courtroom. Robert Sanders, 60, is accused of murdering Tasha Morrison in January of 2015. He’s been sitting in the Travis County Jail for 628 days and counting. His attorney Ken Anshutz says his client is ready to go to trial to prove he’s innocent.
“Patience has run out and he wants and demands a trial,” says Anshutz. While Anshutz is ready, the prosecution is not.
“Much of it has to do with the closure of the APD lab and the effect it has had on testing,” explains Jeremy Sylestine with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. The delays caused by the abrupt closure of APD’s lab has had a major impact on testing DNA results in criminal cases, which leaves both parties frustrated.
“Right now, every murder, every capital murder, every sexual assault, every sexual assault of a child case, there is no lab to send it to. DPS cannot take over this case load and I don’t see the money being set aside for private labs,” says defense attorney Darla Davis.
Prosecutors are worried that more criminal cases could be delayed or dismissed because DNA results are not ready.
“It puts us in the position of having to come to court and say that we are not ready. With the prevalence of DNA evidence today in criminal trials, it may not be the most deciding factor in a case, but we definitely want to know if it’s been tested and I think the juries and Travis County expect that of us,” says Sylestine.
In front of Judge Coronado, Anshuntz argued that this delay is unacceptable. “It seems to me the District Attorney owes Mr. Sanders and the community an explanation on what it’s doing since the closure of the DNA lab and whether more money needs to be thrown at that broken APD lab or instead,move toward an independent lab for this community.”
Davis agrees APD cannot be trusted to reopen it’s lab after what an audit found by the Texas Forensic science Commission. “Anyone who wants violent crime investigated, and in a timely manner in Austin, should care about the malfeasance that was going on at the lab that required it’s closure,” says Davis.
Austin police shut down their DNA lab in early June after the audit by the commission found the lab was using testing standards that the forensic DNA community deemed scientifically unfounded. The commission found the lab was not using some chemicals properly and cited evidence in sexual assault cases may have been impacted and observed potential “carry-over contamination” in the DNA samples.
Davis says that calls into question years of DNA results in major criminal cases tested and analyzed by APD’s lab.
Judge Coronado says he will grant the prosecution more time to get the DNA results in Sanders’ murder case. Prosecutors hope that will be in the next few weeks but admit it’s hard to predict now that some cases are in limbo due to the lab closure.