State forensics looking to streamline rape kits in Texas

Backlog of untested rape kits at Austin Police Headquarters in 2015. (KXAN Photo)
Backlog of untested rape kits at Austin Police Headquarters in 2015. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The same group that helped shut down Austin’s crime lab last summer is answering a big question Friday. The Texas Forensic Science Commission wants to know how the lab’s technicians were able to examine a large number of cases if there were so many glaring problems?

However, there is another issue on the commission’s agenda. The commission is considering a proposal to standardize the way rape kits are collected in Texas. Experts believe streamlining the process of collecting rape kits in Texas will make sure that DNA labs are following the most “current and consistent” practices in the industry.

“It’s come to my attention, since I’ve only been in Texas a year, that there’s multiple kits being used,” said Dr. Nancy Downing.

The associate professor for the Texas A&M College of Nursing has a background in forensic nursing. She says the way the evidence from sexual assault kits is being analyzed in crime labs seems to vary between each lab she checked.

“Crime labs have their own favored analysis and their favorite process and even the nurses have disagreements about which types of evidence to collect,” Downing said.

Downing says by standardizing each rape kit, there is less of a chance of contamination and a much faster process.

“I see it as a way to improve efficiency. We have a kit backlog, it’s a big issue across the nation, not just here. Would this help streamline that process? If the analysts getting the kit, they’re familiar with the kit, it’s the same one every time.”

On Friday, the commission decided to create a stakeholder panel consisting of crime lab analysts, nurses and attorneys to decide which tools are necessary in a standard kit. Downing says the idea would be to gradually institute a kit replacement so they aren’t wasting the kits currently in use.

“In fact, you could argue that over time, it could reduce costs by eliminating a lot of delay in kit processing,” she said.

In addition to streamlining the process for collecting rape kits, a Texas state representative has introduced legislation that could help fund evidence testing.

The Austin Police Department revealed that they have a little more than 4,000 backlogged DNA cases. The majority of them are sexual assault kits, with an estimated 3,300 cases.

The department is still struggling to keep up with the number of backlogged rape kits that need to be processed. So, APD is asking the city for $2 million more after a deal with a North Texas lab to help with some of the cases that fell through. It costs about $625 to examine each rape kit.

On Monday, APD Maj. Mike Eveleth told the city’s Public Safety Commission that the North Texas lab surprised the department by suddenly saying that they couldn’t process cases anymore. Now, APD has identified another lab to take those cases in Austin. “They’re local and we can basically hand deliver [cases],” Eveleth said. “We can have face-to-face contact with them and the turnaround is 30 to 60 days. So, that’s going to be a big advantage.”

Austin City Council will vote on APD’s $2 million request next week.

Former director: “It’s inexcusable”

Mark Gillespie is a former director of the APD Forensic Science Division. (KXAN Photo/Juan Salinas)
Mark Gillespie is a former director of the APD Forensic Science Division. (KXAN Photo/Juan Salinas)

KXAN sat down Friday with Mark Gillespie, a forensic consultant and owner of Gillespie Security and Investigations. Gillespie was hired in 1996 as the director of APD’s forensic science division. Gillespie says the lab’s fate is no surprise.

“The lab has not been properly supervised, managed. There’s been a deficiency in leadership and people have not been held accountable,” said Gillespie. “Our justice system doesn’t deserve what they’re getting. They deserve 100 percent better.”

Gillespie says when he started working in the new position, he noticed the problems right away.

“Upon my arrival, I was just astonished at how incredibly poor shape the lab was. They had inadequate facilities, inadequate equipment, inadequate funding, inadequate personnel, [and] not enough personnel,” said Gillespie. “They didn’t have the right people with the right degrees, the right experience, the right education.”

Gillespie says the division worked to make significant improvements to operations and then sought to expand the lab’s capabilities to include DNA. During his time at APD, he was an integral part of securing the $1.9 million bond election that went toward funding the forensic science center.

“We were embarking on a great pathway to success,” he said. However, he left the department in January 2003, before seeing the results of his work come to fruition.

The problem, he says, comes down to the scientist — the DNA analysts — not the science itself. “If they are lazy, sloppy, uneducated or under-trained, they’re going to make mistakes. Forensic science, across the nation, is in a crises mode in many areas. Not because of the science, but because of the individuals who operate the science.”

The issues, Gillespie says, can be traced to human failures that could have been avoided.

“There was a failure in their ability to do the job,” he said. “Failures like these can mean that someone spends the rest of his life in jail and never comes home to his family ever again. It means the difference between freedom and prison.”

Gillespie told KXAN that because of the situation at the lab, criminals have continued to offend in our area.

“There are repeat offenders out there and we have their DNA in a rape kit. Any one of us — you, your family, your mother, your sister — can be a victim of that, and that is just not right.”

Gillespie says there is too much at risk not to move forward and rebuild.

“It can get on the right track, but they can only do it with the right attention, the right focus, the right vision, and the right people,” said Gillespie. “Forensic science provides a valuable service to our criminal justice system. It can make the difference between freedom or a prison sentence and it’s extremely important. I think every effort needs to be made to rebuild, to pick up the pieces. Put systems in place and people in place, that are held accountable, so that these things don’t ever happen again.”

Evidence testing grant

A state representative has filed legislation that could assist Texas law enforcement agencies testing sex assault evidence, by creating a grant program funded through an optional voluntary donation on Texas driver’s license applications.

The bill, HB 1729 filed Thursday by State Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, would create the state administered grant program. Contributions would be sent to the Texas Comptroller’s office, which would have a dedicated account for the money. The funds could be used on law enforcement agencies, including city police departments, sheriff’s offices and constable’s offices, according to the bill.

Several law enforcement agencies in Texas have been plagued with sex assault evidence backlogs, including APD.

The legislation would allow for anyone applying for, or renewing, their driver’s license to donate $1 or more to the evidence testing grant program. Contributions could be made on paper forms or online, the bill states.

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