Travis County prosecutors as early as Friday will begin notifying about 2,200 people convicted of crimes — including people in prison for murder and rape — that forensic evidence in their cases might have been flawed because of faulty testing at the Austin police crime lab and that they might be entitled to an appeal.
The first batch of letters will be mailed to 642 people who have addresses that prosecutors and investigators have been able to recently verify, and officials said they are pressing forward to locate the other 1,559 defendants in coming days and to notify them as soon as possible.
The number of notices is significantly lower than officials first feared, when they estimated about 3,600 cases might have had DNA evidence that merited further review. Austin defense attorneys had placed the number closer to 5,000.
Recipients of the notices include defendants who remain incarcerated, who have already served prison terms and been released, or who are currently on probation. Most of the nearly 650 notices set to be mailed Friday will go to defendants who remain behind bars, officials said.
The earliest cases are from 2004 and include convictions as recent as 2016.
“This process is specifically intended to identify a situation where an innocent person was wrongly convicted because of DNA evidence,” Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said Thursday. “We are looking at a very small population, if any, but that is the point of this process.”
“If we have someone who is convicted on DNA evidence that isn’t reliable, and it played a material role in their conviction, our duty is to see that justice is done to correct that,” said Assistant District Attorney Dexter Gilford, who supervises the agency’s conviction integrity unit.
The notification to defendants marks the most significant development in the effort to locate any possibly innocent persons who might have been imprisoned as a result of work done by the DNA lab. It comes after months of continued fallout that began with the closure of the facility in June, when a state audit said the lab’s staff were using outdated and incorrect procedures in analyzing DNA evidence.
The facility remains shuttered, and city and county officials are trying to determine whether to try to reopen it or possibly privatize the lab.
Gilford said prosecutors and investigators have been working for weeks to identify defendants whose cases included DNA evidence.
They’ve been working off a spreadsheet provided by Austin police that showed about 6,500 entries. Officials said they learned that some of the entries were duplicates, while other cases didn’t result in any convictions, making further review unnecessary.
“We are trying to identify anyone who suffered an adverse consequence, and DNA was material to that consequence,” Gilford said.
The notices provide information to defendants about what to do if they want their cases reviewed. They may notify the nonprofit Capital Area Private Defender Service, which is in final negotiations to handle much of the work on behalf of the county at a cost still being determined. Some may want to contact private defense lawyers to represent them, officials said.
If requested, defender service staff will review each case to determine the degree to which a case hinged on DNA evidence and whether a convicted person might have grounds for appeal.
“The notices are just the first step,” Gilford said.