APD DNA lab debacle could spill over to DWI cases

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

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A former Austin Police Department forensic scientist says APD’s crime lab technicians are using outdated science to analyze the amount of alcohol in a person’s body, possibly compromising DWI cases.

In the letter sent to Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, current lab director for Alamo Forensic Services Debra Stephens says she recently reviewed a blood alcohol analysis that was done by technicians from APD.

The letter reads in part:

The laboratory is incorrectly reporting results using a statistical approach not used by other forensic laboratories. I believe their method validation procedure and estimation of measurement uncertainty has been incorrectly determined and reported… the blood alcohol procedure should be reviewed and updated to follow current scientific techniques.”

Stephens urges District Attorney Lehmberg to investigate the issue. Her letter states that personnel in the blood alcohol analysis wing should be retrained, shutdown and reviewed. Right now, the APD DNA lab is closed for outdated, inconsistent practices.

In 2012, a year after Stephens was fired, she filed a complaint against Austin’s crime lab alleging improper shortcuts during drug evidence testing. Several reviews by the state and FBI found no issues, KXAN reported last year. Stephens lost a civil lawsuit against the city and a subsequent appeal, according to court records.

Stephens’ attorney, Jerry Smith, who represented her during those hearings, says he’s not surprised these concerns have come to light.

“Rather than to meet and try to find out the validity of the questions that they were raising they decided to get rid of the whistleblowers,” Smith says. “The lab should’ve been investigated in 2012 I mean a thorough investigation not some whitewash.”

Smith says, as a criminal defense attorney, he’s concerned on what this could mean, not only for his cases, but many others in Travis County.

“What we should all demand, all citizens, is the facts. Give us the facts and then we can wait is those facts and come to a determination,” Smith said. “When the government has its thumb on the scale and it’s no longer a fair fight and then were violating the very principles that made this country great.”

In response to critics who may think Stephens is a disgruntled employee, Smith insists, if there’s nothing to hide, then investigate.

“Let’s put sunlight on that lab, let’s find out about their procedures, let’s open up some of their cases, then we can see if it’s a disgruntled employee or if it’s incompetence in that department.” Smith said.

APD released a statement saying their blood alcohol analysis is scientifically correct and up to date. They also said, in part:

APD personnel met with officials from both the Travis County District Attorney elect and the County Attorney to discuss the concerns raised. APD’s preliminary assessment is that we are in compliance with the proper procedures and protocols. However, APD will work with the attorneys along with the Department of Public Safety to validate our work

Interim Chief Manley responds to claims

Interim Chief Brian Manley says he is familiar with Debra Stephens, the scientist making the accusations. He says he was made aware of the letter Monday.

“I see these as very similar to allegations she’s made in the past, which were unfounded; however we are going to make sure we run this down and that we are still consistent with ASCLAD [American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors] standards and that’s the review that we’re conducting now,” Manley says.

He says because of the DNA debacle, the department will still investigate for the sake of maintaining confidence in their department.

Manley continued, “We’re not going to stop there, we will run this down, and we will meet with our partners over at DPS, we have already been in contact with them, they have already agreed to look at the practices and the protocols that we’re following to ensure, once again, like they did in the past when she made allegations that we are consistent with best practices and policy.”