Austin DNA lab leader’s work triggered alarm in sex assault case


Highlights

Prosecutors at the Travis County DA’s office questioned DNA lab leader Diana Morales’ reliability as a witness.

State auditors raised a red flag because it seemed the lab hadn’t followed its own protocols in the case.

Two months after an Austin police lab supervisor stayed mum about a broken freezer housing hundreds of DNA samples this year, Travis County prosecutors in an ongoing sexual assault trial got panicky about her analysis and questioned her about her conclusions in that case.

Her answers alarmed them even more, according to memos written by the prosecutors.

Prosecutors Brandon Grunewald and Robert Smith believed DNA technical leader Diana Morales contradicted herself during two separate conversations, according to their memo. At one point, minutes before she was set to testify in the May trial, she also had to call another analyst to help her with calculations, prosecutors said.

Grunewald and Smith documented their worries, and the district attorney’s office made those memos part of a file of potential witnesses whom they consider unreliable.

Yet Morales, whose qualifications to analyze DNA had been questioned by a colleague as far back as 2010, continued working for the Austin Police Department.

Only last week, after the American-Statesman revealed how Morales handled the broken freezer and state experts informed the department that they no longer wanted to help retrain her, did officials reassign her from the lab to the department’s records division.

The latest revelations come as the scope of the problems inside the troubled lab continue to come into focus, rippling throughout the Travis County criminal justice system. This week, the Statesman reported that the state would no longer work to retrain four of the lab’s six DNA analysts, including Morales, after losing confidence in their abilities. And officials have said it might cost up to $14 million to review results of testing from the lab in 6,000 cases over a 12-year period.

Interim Police Chief Brian Manley said he learned of concerns about Morales’ work in the sexual assault case against 26-year-old William McGee in June, when the Texas Forensic Science Commission also cited her performance in that case as troublesome. Officials responded to the commission’s numerous concerns by closing the lab.

Manley said the department planned to address any problems through state retraining, which had continued until this week.

“We were working toward reopening our lab and retraining our staff, knowing that we were going to do a look-back to determine what happened at the lab and how we got in the position we are in now,” Manley said.

The Statesman hasn’t yet reviewed documentation of Morales’ education and credentials, and it is requesting to review her Austin police personnel file.

She couldn’t be reached for comment.

Losing confidence

It is unclear how prosecutors in the case against McGee resolved concerns about DNA evidence. Neither the involved prosecutors nor defense attorneys returned calls seeking comment.

Court records show he was found not guilty of sexual assault but was sentenced to 42 years in prison on an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge. He had been accused of attacking his girlfriend, knocking her teeth out and leaving her with a broken jaw.

Documentation from Smith and Grunewald indicate how baffled they were by Morales’ responses to their questions when they confronted her about her analysis.

According to their memos, McGee’s case was already underway in the 167th District Court when Grunewald got a phone call. It was Lynn Garcia from the Texas Forensic Science Commission, whose agency was in the process of auditing the police crime lab.

The auditors had raised a red flag because it seemed that the lab hadn’t followed its own protocols in the McGee case. The math used to reach a conclusion about a DNA sample – one being used against McGee in trial – made no sense.

The prosecutors found Morales standing in the hallway outside the courtroom, waiting to testify. The three went to a small conference room to discuss the issue.

But Morales’ answers to their questions just raised more questions. During the hastily called meeting, Morales looked through her files, pulled out her calculator and tried to explain her methodology, the memos said. But when she couldn’t, she called another analyst for help.

“Not knowing any better, we excused ourselves to check in with … DPS and were told Diana’s answer was not a scientifically valid approach to the issue,” Smith wrote. “We decided to get all the people on a conference call to hash out the problem.”

But that phone call with the Texas Department of Public Safety muddied the issue further when both prosecutors said Morales gave different answers than she had earlier.

“When Brandon asked her why she told us something different the day before, she said she had not understood the question we were asking,” Smith wrote.

They summarized their concerns with Morales in two memos that would have been disclosed to the attorney of every defendant prior to Morales’s testimony in a criminal case.

Complaints date to 2010

The McGee case came two months after Morales had written a memo that has now been widely circulated in the criminal justice community about how lab staff handled a broken freezer housing hundreds of DNA samples.

Morales wrote that, after the freezer broke, an alarm system that is supposed to alert lab staff malfunctioned, and that eight days passed before anyone realized the problem. However, she added that, because workers had no way of knowing whether any samples had been damaged, there was no need to tell investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys or judges — a decision that has sparked outrage.

Manley has previously said the lab’s staff recognized the importance of the issue, which is why Morales wrote a memo documenting it. However, he added that they didn’t realize the need to notify others and should have.

The two incidents aren’t the first time Morales’ work has come under scrutiny.

In 2010, a former crime lab employee wrote a 25-page memo complaining about personnel and professional problems at the crime lab. Among her complaints: Morales wasn’t qualified to do her job and had cheated on a test to decide whether she was competent to analyze DNA.

In her allegation, the former employee accused a supervisor of helping Morales make DNA calculations, but an internal investigation determined that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Morales or her supervisor.



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