Austin Crime Lab Scandal: Justice Ignores Compromised DNA

Austin Police Department DNA Lab Fails the Public and the DWI Law System

austin-apd-dna-labYou wouldn’t eat food that’s been left out for eight days. Would you use 8-day-old DNA to solve a crime? To choose a punishment that might alter someone’s life forever? That’s what’s been happening with hundreds of DNA samples at the Austin Police Department due to a broken freezer and a failure by lab officials to report the problem.

This spring, a freezer broke in Austin. But it was no ordinary freezer. It was a DNA sample freezer trusted by the city and its citizens to keep crime scene DNA preserved for use in vital legal cases.

Vital to Austin DWI lawyers like our own James Gill, DNA evidence is one of the strongest indicators of guilt or innocence in modern cases. When properly tested and treated, DNA can be relied upon to provide unbiased, scientific evidence of a person’s impact on a crime scene.

This is of special interest to any central Texas DWI lawyer because this same lab stores and tests bloods samples in driving-while-intoxicated cases. The Law Office of James Gill finds the lack of details regarding Austin DWI trials to be disturbing. “I would expect a preemptory statement to remove any doubt, such as, ‘We have concluded no DWI suspect blood alcohol tests have been affected by the refrigeration failure,'” James Gill says. “But they have remained silent on this front.”

Unfortunately, at the Austin Police Department, the freezer breakdown was not mentioned to anyone outside the lab. Officials did not even tell other APD departments, nor prosecutors, attorneys, or judges. The issue is only being brought to light because of the efforts of Capital Area Private Defender Service, an external non-profit organization.

The APD DNA lab was already under scrutiny from outside audits, and has been shut down since June, causing a backlog in forensic services. The Texas Forensic Science Commission actually reported in late summer that the lab’s track record caused “concerns about the APD DNA lab’s understanding of foundational issues in DNA analysis.” For months, the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association has been asking city officials to separate the lab from APD for impartiality and effectiveness reasons, although of course there are cost considerations in such a change. In addition, prosecutors had already been worried about the lab’s failures and had been sorting through all APD investigations since 2004 to see how many decisions might need to be re-evaluated.

Fortunately, the issue is now getting attention, even if it is months after the lab had to be shut down. The Austin Chronicle has made the lab crisis a front-page feature, albeit one that does not mention the freezer failure. Other officials, including Travis County District Attorney-elect Margaret Moore, are worried about the failures in procedure, reporting, attitude, training, and transparency demonstrated by this incident. Some believe the lab work should be outsourced to a more experienced organization. However, APD itself is moving in the opposite direction, more than doubling the number of lab staff, calling upon other agencies to assist with case load, and retraining the existing staff.

“[It] is fascinating that APD was under the radar for this long,” Chris Perri, an attorney with the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, says. “If it wasn’t for the Forensic Science Commission, they’d still be doing it wrong.”

“It makes you wonder what else they known and haven’t disclosed,” says Austin lawyer James Gill. “This is the problem with police crime labs. They are not reporting independent science.”

Here is the press conference with Interim Police Chief Brian Manley about the lab’s woes and backlog: