Austin police lab rocked by new questions about DWI testing


A former employee claims the lab’s blood alcohol testing process is flawed.

Debra Stephens criticized the lab’s work before, but earlier investigations didn’t confirm her allegations.

Police said they remain confident in the lab’s work but have retained an outside agency to evaluate it.

A scientist who formerly worked for the Austin Police Department’s embattled crime lab has charged that it’s not only the accuracy of DNA testing that officials need to be concerned with — it’s also the far more common blood-alcohol testing the facility has performed on DWI cases.

Debra Stephens sent a letter this week to District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg claiming that the lab’s blood alcohol analysis methods, too, weren’t up to industry standards. Stephens, owner of the private Alamo Forensic Services in San Antonio, was fired from the Austin police lab in 2011 after she raised objections to its scientific methods.

Stephens charged that the method Austin lab techs were using to calculate blood alcohol levels didn’t allow for a wide enough margin of error, overstating the confidence in their results. In an interview, she said she was alerted to the deficiency when she was hired to retest a blood sample for a case challenging the Austin lab’s results, and reached a much different conclusion.

W. Clay Abbott, a DWI expert for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said that while there is a legitimate dispute in the scientific community over how best to interpret such lab results, the variations that Stephens identified would affect only a tiny number of close-call cases.

At a Friday afternoon press conference, interim Police Chief Brian Manley said he remains confident in the lab’s blood alcohol testing. Officials also noted that Stephens’ earlier complaints against the lab had been investigated and dismissed as meritless.

Yet it’s not the first time that the issue of the Austin lab relying on a relatively wide margin of acceptable error in its blood alcohol testing has arisen.

Defense attorney Sam Bassett, a former chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, recalled a 2011 case in which prosecutors agreed to reduce his client’s felony DWI charges to a misdemeanor after a private lab determined the Austin lab’s blood alcohol reading was off by 0.025 percent.

And at a time when the police forensics lab has endured an almost daily barrage of damaging revelations about its staff and operations, law enforcement officials were taking no chances.

After receiving the letter on Tuesday afternoon, Lehmberg’s office alerted County Attorney David Escamilla, who prosecutes most DWI cases as misdemeanors. So concerned was he that he directed a staffer to bring a copy of Stephens’ letter to a defense attorney in the middle of a trial that hinged on a defendant’s blood alcohol level.

“I scanned it and immediately asked for a recess to analyze the letter,” the attorney, Brian Roark, recalled. The judge granted a month’s postponement.

On Friday, the county attorney’s office said it sent out a letter to local defense lawyers alerting them to Stephens’ letter as part of the prosecution’s legal obligation to reveal any evidence it might have that could affect cases.

In the meantime, Escamilla said his office would continue to use the Austin lab to prosecute its DWI cases. He said his office sends an average of 100 samples a month for testing.

“We welcome the opportunity to go into court and make our cases,” he said.

On Friday, meanwhile, Manley announced the Police Department had retained the Texas Department of Public Safety to review the forensic lab’s blood testing protocols. Lynn Garcia, general counsel for the Forensic Science Commission, added that it would also take up Stephens’s allegations at its next meeting in February.

“It will be processed through our complaint screening procedure and the Commissioners will decide whether the allegations merit any further inquiry,” she said. Garcia said a toxicology expert would study the issue in anticipation of the meeting.

Until now, officials have focused on the forensic lab’s troubled DNA division, the target of a critical July audit by the forensic commission. The report found the division’s staff was poorly trained and using an outdated method of analyzing DNA evidence, conclusions that prompted the shuttering of the DNA section days earlier.

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.

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