Attorneys: Keeping the secret of a broken DNA freezer may be a crime

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) — Hours after an Austin Police Department memo was released about a broken freezer holding evidence, attorneys say it could be a violation of the law.

“This is outrageous. This set of circumstances is preposterous,” defense attorney Skip Davis says. “In their own memo, they acknowledge that they have probably degraded and compromised their samples.”

Davis says he’s concerned about his cases and others, saying, “I guess they were going to proceed as if it was every other day and this evidence had been properly maintained, properly handled.”

He says not sharing the information with the District Attorney’s Office and defense attorneys could be a legal violation.

“This to me is a Brady violation,” Davis said. “Brady is the U.S. Supreme Court law that states if the government or any of its law enforcement agencies has any information that tends to show the innocence of the person who is accused, or impeach the credibility of people who are accusing the accused, then that information has to be — must be — distributed to the defense team.”

The incoming district attorney, Margaret Moore, told us by phone she learned about the issue about a month ago.

“I find it very surprising and disappointing,” Moore said. “It was disturbing in that it seems to show that the people in the APD lab were insufficiently trained as the the implications of an incident like that, and their responsibility to give that information to the District Attorney’s Office.”

Davis says, “I contend it is a cover-up because the language they used in their own letters, if you read it, they say, ‘We’re not going to tell our customers that we had this significant departure the standards.’ In other words, we’ll just be quiet and act like nothing happened.”

Impact on Travis County cases

Moore says the impact the freezer debacle will have on cases in Travis County remains to be seen.

“We’re at the beginnings of a serious effort to address it and particularly to address the recommendations of the Texas Forensics Science Commission report, so I think we’re going to get on the track very soon but in the meantime there are major problems that are costing the taxpayers a lot of extra money,” Moore said.

At least one defense attorney told us it will impact his case.

Ariel Payan is defending Meechaiel Criner, the man accused of killing UT student Haruka Weiser.

Payan told us, although the DNA from his case was stored after the freezer was fixed, he has now way of knowing it was secure. He plans to request a hearing to see if the evidence is still admissible.