Travis County judge calls DNA testing backlog ‘critical’

FILE - APD DNA Lab (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - APD DNA Lab (KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – A Travis County Criminal District Court judge is joining a growing chorus of criminal justice advocates saying the DNA testing backlog of sex assault cases has reached a critical point. Just this week Judge Karen Sage says she ordered one long-held suspect be released from jail in the interest of honoring his constitutionally-protected right to a speedy trial.

“I know if I have a case in my court and there is DNA [involved], I don’t think about the possibility it’s going to go on my jury calendar for at least a year right now,” Judge Karen Sage told Monday’s Public Safety Commission meeting, adding she sees the same frustrations in her murder cases, too.

Austin Police Chief of Operations Brian Manley says APD is working toward being able to offer a timeline on when the backlog of more than 600 DNA-related cases will finally be dealt with — 484 of which have a sex assault component.

Last week, city council voted to spend $1.6 million this year to send cases to a lab run out of Dallas County for testing.

“We do have the ability with them to prioritize a handful of cases if we have one that is such an urgency it needs immediate processing,” Manley said. He also said the department has been sending rape kits to the DPS lab which is currently in possession of 112.

Judge Sage points out federal cases mandate a DNA test return in 90 days. She recommends state DNA testing be done within 180 days.

Chief Manley also reiterated APD secured funding for seven lab technicians and a manager in this year’s budget. Manley expects the now-closed APD lab will be up and running early to mid 2017. DPS is retraining existing APD DNA analysts, Manley said. The lab closed in June after it was found those analysts were using dated testing methods which KXAN reported may have thrown an unknown number of closed, high profile cases into question.

Also new to commissioners’ ears, Austin Police sex crimes detectives are requesting another sergeant and four detectives to keep up with new sex assault cases coming in as well as to process the cold cases where rape kits are sent out to outside agencies for DNA testing. Commission Chair Rebecca Webber suggested the item be brought up next month as a formal recommendation to council.

Judge Sage congratulated APD executives on their willingness to look at eventually making the crime lab more independent from the department, but added the immediate crisis must be solved first.

“DNA [testing], it’s never been a quick process. But I do feel right now, we have a critical point. I’m very glad we’re going ahead with the Dallas lab but we need to catch up both from the survivor point of view and from the defendant’s point of view.”

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