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Travis County bush

Commissioners Court considers next steps in DNA lab catastrophe

Wednesday, December 7, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court is moving forward with its version of damage control in the wake of revelations about the Austin Police Department’s DNA testing lab.

On Tuesday, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt explained to the court how her plans to move forward start with looking backward, namely with the help of an outside expert to be hired through a formal request for proposals solicitation, or RFP.

“The ‘Look-back’ RFP is to look at the size of the problems that were in the APD lab and come up with mitigation strategies for cases already adjudicated or in the judicial pipeline,” Eckhardt said.

She added that she also wants to issue a “Look-forward” RFP to examine the “best managerial practices for how we should handle DNA testing in our community in the future.”

The first document is currently being crafted, Eckhardt said, and should be ready for the court’s consideration at its meeting next Tuesday. The second RFP won’t be ready until early January.

Both processes will involve the city’s partnership staff from the city and the county, who are currently crafting a draft interlocal agreement to formalize the ad hoc alliance.

In June, a Texas Forensic Science Commission audit revealed a host of troubling issues at the lab, including unqualified employees, contamination of evidence and questionable testing protocols. APD temporarily shut down the lab and has since outsourced its DNA testing to private firms as well as to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

As many as 5,000 people have been convicted of crimes based in part on evidence processed by the APD DNA lab, and each of those cases must now be reviewed.

“This is a fast-moving train, but it needs to be,” Eckhardt said of her push to hire outside help to examine the extent of damage caused by the lab’s failures. “Justice is being delayed. So we must act quickly.”

On Monday, Travis County Criminal Court judges sent a collective letter to Eckhardt, the court, Mayor Steve Adler, City Council and the city’s Public Safety Commission recommending the creation of a new DNA testing lab outside of APD’s control.

The new lab, the judges said, should be under the joint purview of the county and the city. The judges explained that “national forensic best practices recommend that forensic investigations be independent of law enforcement.” They added that the APD lab’s reputation is terminally tarnished and that it has “proven incapable of producing timely and reliable results.”

On Tuesday, Commissioner Brigid Shea indicated her support for giving up on the APD lab altogether.

“If you are involved in trying to prove up someone’s guilty, and also doing the laboratory analysis on the evidence, it seems to me there’s sort of a built-in bias,” Shea said.

As for the potential cost of finding a path forward, Eckhardt warned that it could involve some “sticker shock.”

“But it is going to be far less expensive in terms of injustice and financing to do it quickly, and to do it now and comprehensively,” she said.

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