Austin Police Botch Nearly 1,400 DNA Cases

Forensic-testing issues dating back to the 1980s could leave hundreds of Texas cases open for reinterpretation.

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Style-Photography/Westend61 GmbH/Newscom

The Austin Police Department's (APD) forensic-testing lab has helped nab hundreds of criminals since the 1980s—or has it? Due to poor lab-management and faulty DNA-testing practices, almost 1,400 cases involving DNA evidence may have been botched, leaving innocents at the mercy of this "scientific" proof and the guilty to go free.

Now, any defendant whose case was impacted by DNA evidence analyzed in Austin can request the DNA be re-evaluated. The Travis County District Attorney's (DA) Office said it anticipates many will seek to have their convictions overturned.

Problems at the APD lab, which has since been shut down, were discovered during a three-day audit in May and June. Auditors with the Texas Forensic Science Commission found the lab was understaffed, the staff was undertrained, and the lab's DNA analysis policies were "neither scientifically valid nor supported by the forensic DNA community." A 415-page report on the lab also says DNA "analysts lacked understanding regarding important quality assurance procedures."

The DA's Office has now contacted hundreds of Austin defense attorneys to inform them about potential DNA-analysis issues. According to the office, nearly 1,400 DNA cases—including many that led to convictions—dating back to the mid-1980s may be compromised. The Travis County Commissioners has approved $150,000 to help retest these DNA samples.

And there we have it: Thanks to corners-cutting protocols established by Austin Police and the incompetence of its forensic lab staff, innocent people have likely been convicted, the guilty have likely gone (or will go) free, and the city must fork out untold amounts of dough to re-test DNA and re-litigate contested cases. Sure, the real world is never so tidy as CSI, but we should be able to expect better than this mess from folks who hold people's lives in their hands.

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  1. Problems at the APD lab, which has since been shut down, were discovered during a three-day audit in May and June.

    Maybe it’s just me, but if your criminal cases are relying on a single source for analysis, regular audits might be in order.

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  2. “Problems at the APD lab, which has since been shut down, were discovered during a three-day audit in May and June.”

    How often do PDs audit such labs? The sloppiness must have been over the top if a 3 day audit resulted in a 415 page report. Dare I consider that these problems were suspected years ago?

  3. Give them a break. Nobody’s perfect and sometimes mistakes happen.

  4. Frank Reynolds worked in a forensic-testing lab? Who knew?

    Auditors with the Texas Forensic Science Commission found the lab was understaffed, the staff was undertrained, and the lab’s DNA analysis policies were “neither scientifically valid nor supported by the forensic DNA community.”

    It would be a good time to follow-up on this story, when Austin was given a $1.2 million dollar grant to eliminate rape kit backlog.

    1. Maybe it’s time for the medical industry to start talking lessons from the manufacturing industry on process design and control.

      1. This is one area where the development of robots could make a huge difference. It is hard to think of many jobs more boring, repetitive and prone to human error more than running the same test on some bodily fluid over and over again. Even the most competent and dedicated employee is going to get bored and make a mistake at some point. And few people who are competent and dedicated would want the job.

        All of the issues we have had with DNA testing in this country really is a lesson about the difference between technology and process. Developing some gee wiz technology that can match hair or blood or seaman to a person is one thing. Implementing that technology on a wide scale and actually making it work in thousands of cases is something else entirely. As with most gee wiz technologies, everyone was so impressed with it that no one ever thought about the practical problems of making it work on a large scale.

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          1. Good to know that is all you noticed about a two paragraph post.

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            2. Oh stop, I read the rest. If you’re going to cry about people calling out your funny misspelling then stop doing it.

              My point wasn’t necessarily about robots, although that would be as good a solution as any. My point was that in manufacturing, processes are designed so that any doofus off the street could come in and run them. That eliminates the need for “highly trained” individuals to be doing menial labor. You get a bunch of ditch diggers to come in, teach them the process, then let them plow through the mountain of paperwork.

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  5. What do you expect? Their job is to get convictions, not uncover the truth.

  6. …we should be able to expect better than this mess from folks who hold people’s lives in their hands.

    You offer your neighbors lives into people’s hands, and you think they won’t use those lives like play-doh? Check out Pollyanna over here.

    1. It’s almost like she thinks the moral equivalent of the mafia can be trusted.

  7. It’s a good thing the government has almost completely monopolized policing, only the government can produce law enforcement and justice with such excellence.

  8. See, this is what happens when you monsters constantly cut gov’t funding. They don’t have the money to perform their functions correctly. Of course this would happen in tea-bagger Texas, even if Austin is more liberal than most cities in that state.

  9. People lives, dear, are brumous webs woven delicately between the marbled pillars of moral chicanery and governing delusion.

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  11. They probably figured the DA was going to be too drunk to notice.

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