Advocates join effort to fix Austin police DNA lab problems

As lawyers and scientists continue to review hundreds of criminal cases that might have been affected by the Austin Police Department’s now-shuttered DNA lab, members of a stakeholders advisory group have started meeting to evaluate what went wrong and how to avoid mistakes in the future.

The lab shut down in 2016 after a state audit found problems with its handling and analysis of evidence.

Officials from Austin and Travis County, which both relied on the lab to analyze DNA evidence for criminal cases, hired legal and scientific experts to review cases that might have been affected.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Elaine Hart, who served as Austin’s interim city manager until Spencer Cronk arrived this month, also put together the stakeholders group, which Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion has championed.

The group — made up of community leaders, civil rights and victim advocates and others — will give feedback on how officials should handle DNA lab-related issues. They held their first meeting Feb. 5.

The meetings are not yet open to the public, but Travillion said he wants to make sure the public can see the questions and answers raised at the meetings.

ALSO READ: Austin crime lab bucked DNA standard for years, yet got passing grades

“I don’t think there’s a magic bullet,” Travillion said last week, when commissioners received an update on the DNA lab issue. “I just think that as we demonstrate that we’re listening, as we demonstrate that we’re answering, as we show that to the public, I think they will have more confidence in what we’re doing.”

Commissioner Brigid Shea suggested county staffers create a website with information about their progress.

The city also this month finalized an agreement with the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania. The center will conduct a “root cause analysis,” or a review of the DNA lab’s processes and protocols to find the cause of the deficiencies that prompted the 2016 lab closure.

It also will do a “look forward” review that gives guidance and advice on what needs to change to improve forensic analysis and avoid the problems of the past.

The report will incorporate community feedback, including recommendations from the stakeholders group.

RELATED: Travillion decries lack of civil rights advocates in DNA lab review

The review began in 2016 with the district attorney’s office sending legally required notifications, called Brady notices, to all defendants whose cases might be affected by the issues with the DNA lab. Those defendants could then contact the Capital Area Private Defender Service, a nonprofit indigent defense agency contracted by Travis County, if they wanted to have their cases reviewed.

The defender service then conducts a “materiality review” to decide whether the case’s outcome hinged on DNA evidence.

Of 1,813 cases involving 1,617 defendants, 1,117 Brady notices have been sent to defendants as of Feb. 7, though a couple of hundred were returned to sender, officials said last week. Of those notified:

• 108 were already represented by the service for other reasons.

• 44 were deceased.

• 161 had been deported.

The office is still looking for contact information for 179 people who are not incarcerated, on parole or on probation.

The defender service reports that there is about a 60 percent response rate, and, of those, about 537 people have requested reviews.

Lawyers have done a quick review of the documents available online for those 537 people, and they have flagged 116 of them as high priority for scientific review or possible innocence.

CITY MEMO: Ex-DNA lab chief said police knew of bad grades when he was hired

The team dedicated to DNA lab reviews, called the Forensic Project, has visited more than 10 prisons, sent and received questionnaires from defendants, and has started fact investigations in several cases.

After the cases receive materiality reviews, the Forensic Project sends cases in batches to Dr. Bruce Budowle at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, which is contracted by the city of Austin.

The UNT team conducts scientific reviews that assess the reliability of the police lab’s handling and analysis of evidence.

The team has reviewed 16 cases so far, and lawyers have identified between three to five people who could be entitled to some kind of post-conviction relief. What kind of relief will depend on further review by lawyers.

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