New plan to fix Austin’s DNA Lab after closure due to widespread issues

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) — Travis County leaders have a new plan to correct the widespread problems that shut down Austin police’s DNA lab over the summer.

In a letter obtained by KXAN, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt carefully explains to the legal community, including the incoming district attorney and sheriff, the “major downstream effect” caused by the problems uncovered at the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab. The widespread issues at the crime lab led to its closure in June.

A KXAN investigation earlier this month unveiled thousands of cases called into question after the Austin lab and others across the state used flawed science calculating odds in DNA results. The Texas Forensic Science Commission said while most labs adjusted and updated their protocols to correct the problem, the Austin DNA lab had bigger problems. The issues included analysts using scientifically invalid methods and contamination worries.

The concern has prompted the Travis County District Attorney’s office to begin the process of notifying defendants in approximately 3,600 cases that the DNA results that may have played a part in their prosecution could have possibly been overstated.

In the letter, Judge Eckhardt explains the need to contract with the city of Austin to hire a technical expert to “look back to understand the credibility issues with DNA evidence from the APD Crime Lab and design a mitigation strategy.”

In a second proposal to address the issue, leaders will consider a “consultant to look forward at options for providing the forensic resources appropriate to our community,” says Judge Eckhardt. The judge is also taking a firm stance on the possibility of an independent lab away from the Austin Police Department’s command.

“Based on the information I have gathered so far I am convinced that re-establishing a DNA forensic testing mechanism under APD will not address the serious credibility issues,” says Judge Eckhardt.

The letter addresses a series of what is described as “downstream costs” that KXAN has extensively covered including the need to re-test DNA evidence in cases impacted by the lab. Defendants are also sitting in jail longer than expected awaiting the DNA results. Costs also include the dismissal of cases because the DNA results are not finished in time.

The results have also led to wrongful convictions and most troubling of all “potential injustice” according Judge Eckhardt.

KXAN will continue to investigate the fallout of APD’s DNA lab.

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