Austin crime lab techs are cut from state training course

6:15 p.m Monday, Dec. 12, 2016 Local
Jay Janner
A forensic chemist shows a blood sample stored in a refrigerator in the Austin Police Department’s forensic lab in 2013.

Immediately after the Austin Police Department shuttered parts of its troubled crime lab, police officials asked experts from the Texas Department of Public Safety to help retrain APD staffers with a goal of possibly getting the lab up and running again.

But Monday, DPS officials told the department they had lost faith in most of the staffers they were working with — and wouldn’t be returning.

Instead, according to a one-page letter obtained by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, only a select two from a staff of six DNA analysts are invited to a state facility to continue training in a “supportive environment.”

“I know they feel there have been some challenges, and they aren’t confident in the work of some of our analysts that we have had in retraining,” interim Police Chief Brian Manley said. “Since they have been doing this for us, we want to respect their decision and respect their request.”

Manley said Monday was the first time he had personally been notified of the gravity of the situation.

“They have been in contact with some of our supervisors, but to be made aware of this level of concern, where they don’t want to move forward with four of our scientists, that is a new development,” he said.

Manley said that he plans to learn more in coming days and that “we are going to meet with our staff to get a better understanding of what happened during the training as well as more discussions with DPS to find out why they only want to move forward with two.”

In a letter to the Travis County district attorney’s office, Brady Mills, deputy assistant director of the DPS crime lab, wrote that the last four months of working together have shown that “there are significant challenges that impact confidence in the work product” of some of the lab’s DNA analysts.

“This has been demonstrated through our personal interactions with the group as well as the practical work product that has been completed and reviewed thus far,” Mills wrote. “Coupled with the expressed belief by your office that those senior analysts may no longer be utilized for expert testimony, APD and DPS plan to move forward with a new course of action.”

The decision is the latest blow for the crime lab, which is facing wide-ranging fallout from an array of problems.

It’s also a setback for a department that has expressed desire to get the facility, which was closed in June, operational again, despite a growing opinion among many officials that it should be removed from Austin police oversight.

The department shut down the facility amid revelations that the staff was not using commonly accepted practices for analyzing DNA evidence. An investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission detailed concerns that the lab was using outdated protocols that could significantly skew results.

The use of old 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.

During the forensic commission’s investigation, some staff members appear to have pushed back against the idea that the department was doing the DNA analysis wrong. In its report, the commission said the “lab continued to defend its decision to use” the old protocols, even when investigators told them that the approach was “scientifically indefensible.”

Since the report, other problems have come to light, including a supervisor’s decision not to tell the district attorney’s office that a freezer housing hundreds of vials of DNA evidence sat broken for eight days, potentially damaging the samples.

The American-Statesman reported Sunday that Travis County and the city of Austin could spend as much as $14 million to review and reopen cases involving thousands of DNA samples from the shuttered Austin lab — an unexpected cost so high it could result in a significant increase for taxpayers.