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Travis County Commissioners consider spending up to $14 million on legal review of DNA cases

Wednesday, December 14, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

The Travis County Commissioners Court considered options for how to handle a review of criminal cases potentially compromised by the local DNA lab. Run by the Austin Police Department, the lab shuttered its doors in June following an audit from the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

“What’s particularly concerning about the problems that were happening at the APD lab are that they are the type of problems that can directly lead to wrongful convictions,” said Trudy Strassburger, deputy director of Capital Area Private Defender Service, a nonprofit that prepared a menu of options for the commissioners Tuesday.

The three options could cost the county and city (they will share the costs) anywhere from $6.5 million to $14.4 million to review up to 5,000 cases over five years. Strassburger recommended the cheapest option to commissioners, though they postponed taking any action Tuesday.

That option – known officially as Option C – would narrow the pool of cases by singling out those defendants who want their cases reviewed as well as cases in which DNA played a role in conviction, “so we’re not spending time and resources on people who don’t want their case reviewed,” said Strassburger. A small group of attorneys would handle both the scientific review and potential litigation.

The other two options take a broader approach, with one assigning a lawyer to each of the thousands of cases – even those for which further litigation might not be necessary.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said she hoped the commissioners could vote on a plan of review before the new year. As for how to pay for it, Commissioner Ron Davis stressed the cost-sharing part of the proposals.

“Travis County only receives its revenues through property taxes, fines and fees,” said Davis. “So we are very limited, I guess, as far as what revenue we bring in, and yet we don’t want to handcuff the (district attorney) and any other parties that are involved in going forward to this.”

Eckhardt said Tuesday that she has asked the city of Austin to consider reassigning $1.4 million to fund eight new positions at the APD DNA lab to conduct legal reviews of the evidence handled by the lab technicians.

While city staff had hoped to bring a proposed interlocal agreement to Council this Thursday, Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano wrote in a memo to the mayor and Council members that they expect to bring one forward at the end of January.

Photo by the University of Michigan made available through a Creative Commons licenseThis story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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