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Tuesday, September 19, 2017 by Cate Malek

Austin’s crime lab failure points to national crisis

The latest audit of the Austin Police Department’s crime lab would read as a comedy of errors, if the stakes weren’t so high.

Some concerns in the report released last fall are simpler to fix – equipment failures or cross-contaminating evidence. Reading further though, the lab had flaws in many of its most fundamental operations. It was not only using scientifically unsound testing procedures, but its staff was often not even following those low standards.

As disturbing as these revelations are, the Austin lab is not alone. Similar scandals have occurred in labs in major cities across the country, including neighboring Houston, as well as St. Paul, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia. In 2015, the FBI lab in Washington, D.C. admitted “that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence” over a period of 20 years, according to the Washington Post. Those trials included 32 death sentences.

Local officials have stepped forward to address the problems with the Austin lab – committing $10 million and counting to the project by the end of 2018. But these measures may not be enough. Although DNA evidence seems objective, in reality, it is subject to the same biases that plague the rest of the U.S. criminal justice system. And getting to the root of these issues will require a national response.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt has emphasized the need for “eyes on the system” operating underneath the belief that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” In doing so, Eckhardt is pointing out one of the fundamental problems Austin will have going forward. While the city has taken on the responsibility to turn the lab around, local officials don’t have the scientific background to monitor forensic analysis.

“When you mix police work and science, they don’t always speak the same language,” said Emily LeBlanc, a leading advocate for survivors of sexual assault in Austin who has been closely involved in reforming the DNA lab.

In fact, the auditing agencies designated to watch the lab in the past missed the warning signs for almost a decade. Before 2016, the Austin lab had been passing audits with no problems. It was not until lab staff members defended their use of unsound testing procedures that the Texas Forensic Science Commission was alerted to the problems there and instigated a new audit.

At their meeting on Aug. 18 of this year, members of the commission tried to understand how the Austin lab could have been passing its regular audits. Pamela Sale, vice president of ANAB, the national accrediting body that had been monitoring the lab, explained that the auditors had done nothing wrong during their past reviews of the lab’s work.

“I know it’s going to sound shocking when I say it,” Sale said at the meeting. “But there were no non-conformities with our (auditing) process.” She went on to clarify that the auditing process could be improved, but that one of the issues is that there is no commonly agreed-upon set of standards that forensics labs around the country have to follow. Instead, there are informal guidelines that labs can choose to follow or not.

Mike Coble, a DNA expert, clarified further. Coble works in the Applied Genetics Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is responsible for setting national forensics testing guidelines and training crime labs to follow them. He said that while most of the labs around the country attempt to follow best practices, auditors don’t actually monitor their testing procedures. The only requirement auditors check on is whether the lab has a testing protocol.

“The protocol could be excerpts from ‘Harry Potter,’” Coble said. Beyond that, the auditors “don’t have the teeth” to say whether the testing protocol is actually effective. The forensics science community is working on giving the auditors more power, but, until then, the labs are only monitored using the informal guidelines in place.

Until that happens, DNA evidence is far less objective than most people realize. A summary of the Austin crime lab audit from the Capital Area Private Defender Service emphasizes just how unreliable it can be. The report notes that labs are often working with incomplete, low-quality DNA from “grimy, chaotic crime scenes.” And then analysts must sort out who the DNA belongs to from several unknown individuals.

The procedures the Austin lab was using led analysts to lean towards suspects already identified by police, instead of taking into account all possible suspects the DNA could point to. While this type of confirmation bias is particularly disturbing, analyzing DNA is often more subjective than it seems. This can be a particular problem when it comes to juries, who often have the impression that DNA evidence is infallible.

“It’s extremely important to get (DNA evidence) right because people do watch too much ‘CSI’ and put a lot on that (evidence),” Eckhardt said. “If it’s not scientifically defensible that’s a big problem.”

But despite these fundamental questions about the reliability of forensic testing, Austin officials must do the best they can to rebuild the credibility of the local criminal justice system. They are left with almost 2,000 people who may have been convicted of crimes using flawed evidence, and that will take a long time to come back from. It will also take a coordinated response from people throughout the criminal justice community. But the officials involved seem to know how high the stakes are.

“This isn’t a luxury item,” Eckhardt said. “We have an obligation to see that justice is served.”

This is the second part in a series about Austin’s DNA Lab. Part One in the series is online here.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

This story has been changed since publication to reflect the fact that the FBI laboratory was never closed, as was originally reported.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Police Department: the law enforcement entity for the City of Austin.

Travis County: Travis County is the urban county that includes, notably, Austin.

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