The Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved its part of an agreement with Austin that will pave the way for a review of the fallout from the shuttering of Austin police’s DNA lab.
The Austin City Council will vote Thursday on the agreement and on a plan to turn over the operations of a new DNA lab to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“I have been disappointed at the pace (of efforts to mitigate the DNA lab’s problems), but I am not at all disappointed by the results,” Judge Sarah Eckhardt said at the Commissioners Court’s meeting Tuesday. “There really has been a wonderful level of collaboration, and I do believe that this is the most cost-effective, efficient, fair way to unravel this Gordian knot.”
Travis County commissioners unanimously approved agreements that will split costs on hiring consultants to study the problems with the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab as well as authorize the Capital Area Private Defenders Service to begin analyzing 1,600 cases and contacting people whose convictions might have been affected by faulty practices at the lab.
Gregg Cox, assistant district attorney, said the head of the civil rights unit is overseeing the group at the district attorney’s office that’s handling DNA lab-related cases separately, but in tandem, with the Capital Area Private Defender Service. The defender service is under contract with the city to review cases and inform defendants whose cases might potentially be affected by issues at the lab. These legally required notifications are called Brady notices.
The service has so far sent out 526 of almost 1,600 notices, mainly to defendants who are currently incarcerated and easy to locate, Cox said. About 190 cases are still being reviewed — many of which involved juveniles — for which notices will also need to be sent out. The staff is working to locate and notify the rest.
The Travis County district attorney’s office has estimated that about 3,600 cases could be affected, according to county documents.
The consultants, or possibly a single consultant, will be tasked with investigating what went wrong and recommending what to do moving forward.
Austin police shuttered operations at its DNA lab in June amid an excoriating report from the Texas Forensic Science Commission that showed the lab’s staff wasn’t using commonly accepted practices for analyzing DNA evidence and that detailed concerns the lab was using outdated protocols that could significantly skew results.
The lapses have mounted since then, with Austin police experiencing a series of false starts in its attempts to restart operations at the lab.
During retraining, the DPS informed Austin police that it would no longer work with the bulk of the lab’s staff over a lack of confidence in their work. Austin police sought to rectify the situation by hiring a new lab manager, but ended up with a man that was later barred from working in the lab after the Police Department’s leadership discovered he had a spotty academic record.
If the City Council approves the contract with the DPS on Thursday, it would create the Department of Public Safety Capital Area Regional Lab. The city would pay the DPS about $800,000 a year to oversee the lab.
Austin police hope jump-starting the lab under DPS oversight will help tamp down a significant backlog in untested DNA samples.
Last week, Assistant Chief Troy Gay said the Police Department has 2,535 cases awaiting DNA testing, 1,686 of which are from reported sexual assaults.