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Commissioners Court hears about DNA unit’s failures

Monday, November 14, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court heard a lengthy briefing last week about a catastrophic failure in how DNA evidence is tested in Austin.

The 90-minute discussion was spurred by the closure of the Austin Police Department’s Forensic Services Division DNA Unit following a disastrous audit conducted by the Texas Forensic Commission in July.

That investigation uncovered contaminated test results, policies that potentially encouraged confirmation bias, and scientifically questionable protocols.

According to a document prepared by county staff, “Based upon the available information that has been processed to date, the DA’s office currently estimates that it might ultimately identify a total of approximately 3,600 cases (involving a total of approximately 3,000 defendants) that might potentially be impacted by the issues addressed in the audit reports relating to APD’s DNA lab.”

On Tuesday, Robert Smith of the District Attorney’s Office told the court, “We have about 120 defendants on the docket awaiting DNA analysis and approximately 90 of those are in custody right now. … Dismissals are starting to occur. We’re making arrangements to try to avoid that, but they are starting to occur.”

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt indicated that the court could consider taking action on the matter at a December meeting. She suggested a three-pronged approach: establishing a stakeholder group that would include city of Austin management, hiring an outside technical expert to oversee implementations of the audit’s recommendations and partnering with the city to develop a long-term strategy to guide future forensic lab governance.

Eckhardt said she would bring the item back for action during the court’s voting session on Dec. 6.

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Photo by School of Natural Resources from Ann Arbor (DNA lab) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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