Austin crime lab bucked DNA standard for years, yet got passing grades


In 2010, an influential national organization of scientists devoted to ensuring that forensic labs employ only the latest and best methods of analyzing DNA evidence published a new set of guidelines. In essence, the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods concluded that analysts should use the quality of genetic samples, rather than the quantity of evidence gathered at a crime scene, to decide if they could produce a confident genetic profile.

Despite their increasing importance in criminal investigations, forensic labs in the U.S. aren’t regulated, but rather voluntarily adhere to a set of evolving standards. So the working group, along with the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, set about spreading the new best practices.

Over the next five years, the organizations held numerous training sessions, conducted surveys and visited forensic labs. They stressed that using the older methods could lead a lab to overstate the confidence of its findings — which could result in improper criminal prosecutions. By 2015, every lab across the country that John Butler, a forensic science expert for the national institute, was aware of had adopted the improved method, he said.

All, that is, except one: the DNA lab on Springdale Road operated by the Austin Police Department.

“They were doing calculus problems still using two plus two equals four and algebra math,” Butler said. “Their statistical tools were not sufficient to address the task at hand.”

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