Austin police DNA lab closed amid forensics commission’s concerns

5:05 p.m Friday, June 10, 2016 Local

The Austin Police Department has temporarily suspended operations at its DNA lab because of concerns raised by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, a lack of properly trained supervision and the need to allow staff to learn a new federally required way of verifying evidence, the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV have learned.

The decision means that hundreds of DNA samples — often crucial evidence in crimes such as homicides and sexual assaults — will either be shipped to the Texas Department of Public Safety lab or to private labs for analysis, possibly delaying the outcome of pending cases in already backlogged Travis County criminal courts.

“We don’t believe there are any instances where an innocent person has been convicted or a guilty person has failed to be identified because of the procedures being used within the crime lab,” Police Chief Art Acevedo said. “Having said that, we have reached out to the Texas Forensic Science Commission and have been working with them for some time to ensure our lab not only follows proper procedures, but also standards adopted here in Texas and across the nation.”

Police officials, who were working Friday to determine how best to proceed, said the commission raised concerns about calculations and formulas the lab was using in conducting DNA analysis, but said they didn’t know specifics.

“We have been working on a plan,” Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said. “How are we going to triage our DNA — which cases need to go to DPS and which cases need to go to a private lab? We are working on a formalized plan so we can move forward with all of the evidence that we currently have.”

The department has notified the organization that accredits DNA labs that it will cease operations, possibly until the end of the year. Officials had already scaled back lab operations in recent weeks — its staff were only screening evidence for DNA but were no longer doing analysis — and asked state forensic experts to evaluate the lab’s operation amid concerns about its operations.

Gay said Friday that he hasn’t received a formal notification from the state about the outcome of the experts’ inquiry, but that, based on phone conversations, “there are some challenges in front of us.”

“That is why we are taking proactive measures to stop, regroup and reassess, and we are still reassessing,” Gay said. “We don’t have any of their final findings, other than we know what actions we need to take to move forward.”

The decision comes at a time when the DNA section of the forensic center has been without a leader trained in up-to-date science. A civilian supervisor previously in that job died recently after a lengthy absence.

It also comes at a time when DNA labs nationally are adapting to new federally required procedures.

FBI officials last year notified crime labs across the country that they were using outdated methods to examine samples containing genetic material from multiple people — methods that often led expert witnesses to greatly overstate the reliability of that evidence in court.

The use of outdated protocols to interpret test results means an expert witness might have told jurors that the chances are 1 in more than a billion that the genetic material in question belonged to someone other than the defendant, when those odds are more like 1 in 100.

Travis County prosecutors have since joined a massive statewide effort to re-evaluate cases affected by the miscalculations. But the Austin Police Department’s crime lab, which will have to recalculate statistics on about half of the 1,297 Travis County cases identified so far, is still validating new software and updating its protocols. Meanwhile, the lab’s backlog of cases awaiting DNA analysis has risen to about 1,300, the most in the past five years.

Gay said that the decision to stop doing DNA analysis will allow four to six analysts to learn the new standards, and that DPS officials have agreed to help with that training.

“We are hoping all of this can happen in the next six months so we can get back to operating our lab,” Gay said.

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