AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab remains closed until further notice, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt is bringing up the possibility of creating a local, independent lab altogether.
The lab has been closed since June after a scathing audit found the lab was using outdated and unaccredited DNA testing methods. It could lead to thousands of requests for recalculating of mixed DNA cases and re-testing all together in some, as well as requests for new trials from prisoners who say they are innocent. And every day the lab remains closed, the backlog of cases grows.
“It causes delays in criminal case processing, which is unfair to victims and to defendants in jail, and contributes to the challenging pressures on our daily jail population,” said Eckhardt Wednesday in a statement to KXAN News. Eckhardt says that population hit a 7-year high this summer.
At the end of her statement, Eckhardt said, “We should look at all options, including contracting out to a DNA testing lab and the establishment of a local, independent, non-profit drug/DNA testing lab to serve our criminal justice system.”
In other major cities in Texas, the DNA lab is handled by a not-for-profit independent lab, rather than the city’s police department.
KXAN sent survey questions to all Austin city council members asking whether they’ve actually read the Texas Forensic Science Commission’s audit of the APD lab, and if they think the APD lab should re-open.
So far, Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Ora Houston, Delia Garza, Sabino Renteria, Greg Casar, Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo have responded. Of them, Council member Houston was the only one who confirmed she had not read the audit report. Council Members Sheri Gallo and Don Zimmerman have not responded to the survey questions submitted by KXAN and Council Member Ellen Troxclair is on maternity leave.
Pool was the only person to definitively say she believed the APD lab should re-open, but “with properly trained forensic analysts, equipment, and testing procedures approved by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board.”
Mayor Adler said in a statement: “…the Council directed the City staff to conduct a review of the operation of the Austin Police Department’s own DNA lab measured against the formation of an independent lab and to consider other “feasible options” as well. We are currently waiting for that recommendation, and until we hear from City staff about the plusses and minuses of each option it would be premature to answer.”
Council Members Houston, Garza, Casar, Tovo, and Kitchen also expressed that position in their responses but Garza went on to say, “contracting with an independent lab and re-testing old cases are certainly options on the table.”
Council Member Renteria has yet to answer that question.