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DNA backlog at Austin police crime lab could slow massive case review


Mark Norwood, sentenced to life in prison for the infamous 1986 slaying of Christine Morton, was to face a jury last September in the similar killing of Debra Baker. But only weeks before his trial, both of his cases were among thousands in Texas flagged for review because of questions about DNA evidence.

FBI officials last year notified crime labs across the country that they were using outdated methods to examine samples containing genetic material from multiple people — methods that often led expert witnesses to greatly overstate the reliability of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

Prosecutors in Travis County 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.

Such a pileup weighs down the criminal justice system, holding up the search for suspects in investigations and delaying court proceedings for those with pending charges. Lab officials say they aim to resume new casework in July but don’t know how long it will be before they can start re-evaluating old cases.

“It is going to be more work than we had anticipated,” crime lab director Bill Gibbens said. “We need to figure out what the courts want and what the (state) forensic commission is going to accept. We are still trying to work through the process of what we need to do to satisfy our customers.”

Texas takes lead

The use of outdated protocols to interpret test results means an expert witness might have told jurors that the chances are 1 in more than a billion that the genetic material in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.

Forensic scientists have said the DNA issues could have affected tens of thousands of cases nationwide dating back to 1999. The Texas Department of Public Safety, which controls only eight crime labs in the state, counted about 25,000 cases that contained mixed DNA results. Counties and police departments with their own labs counted hundreds more.

But exactly how many have been affected and must be recalculated is still being determined.

In Texas, which has become a national leader in efforts to address the concerns, prosecutors and criminal justice leaders are working to prioritize the test results of those in which DNA was a linchpin piece of evidence in a guilty plea or jury conviction.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission, which sets standards for physical evidence in state courts, and the Harris County public defender’s office, backed by a $400,000 state grant, are helping prosecutors across the state alert defendants and review case files, including exhibits, affidavits and transcripts.

Signs about the issues have been posted in multiple languages at jails and state prisons since December and provide a Harris County post office box to which inmates may write to request that their cases be re-evaluated.

Some jurisdictions, such as Travis County, are undertaking the review and notifying inmates on their own.

So far, the requests for recalculations have been low. DPS has been asked to review only 100 cases from counties statewide. The Austin police crime lab has received requests for fewer than 100 cases.

But those numbers are expected to grow. Travis County prosecutors have mailed out letters to 784 defendants of the nearly 1,300 who could have been affected, including six death row inmates.

Lab wait list grows

In Austin, the Capital Area Private Defender Service has been helping the district attorney’s office process re-evaluation requests to avoid conflict of interest should inmates choose to challenge their cases based on the new DNA data.

Assistant District Attorney Scott Taliaferro said the work is not new for what is now the Conviction Integrity Unit. Prosecutors in 2000 and 2009 undertook internal reviews of more than 400 violent crime cases dating back to 1982, when they sought to identify those in which DNA evidence could have made a difference.

“We have been doing this type of work for a long, long time,” Taliaferro said.

Still, the district attorney’s office is requesting funds for two additional prosecutors, an investigator and a paralegal to help with the workload. The Austin police lab, which has a budget of $7.2 million, is seeking about $200,000 for two more analysts.

The lab has contended with backlogs in the past, and just this month it received approval to send out about 2,000 sexual assault kits to a Salt Lake City-based vendor for testing.

But the demand for DNA analysis is growing, lab officials said. The number of pending DNA cases jumped from 179 in March 2013 to 844 in March 2015. That figure stood at 1,289 this March, while the average turnaround rate for DNA analysis rose to about eight months.

Lab director Gibbens said the increase could be attributed to a change in state sexual assault laws that now require all rape kits to be tested, a growing reliance on forensic evidence in court and recent scientific concerns that put cases on hold.

Prosecutors said at least one case against Norwood — the murder of Morton — was not affected by the recalculations. DNA evidence against the 62-year-old former dishwasher from Bastrop was crucial. It was discovered on a bloody bandana outside her home, connecting him to the scene of the crime. That bandana also was pivotal in exonerating Michael Morton, her husband, whose blood was absent and who served nearly 25 years in prison because of a wrongful conviction.

Norwood, whose lawyers are expected in court this week, is now awaiting DNA test results from the DPS lab in the 1988 death of Baker. Like Morton, the former property manager was found beaten inside her home. She was 34.



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