The implosion of Austin’s crime lab: A timeline
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By Cate Malek and Luis Pedraza
It has blindsided Austin’s criminal justice community.
What started a year ago as a few concerns over an audit has spiraled into the permanent closure of the city’s crime lab and the firing of nearly all of its employees. The lab’s failures have added to a decades-long testing backlog, and may have compromised the evidence used in over 1,800 convictions. Addressing these issues will cost taxpayers a predicted $10 million, in addition to the cost of opening a new lab.
A year after the meltdown, local officials have committed to doing whatever it takes to fix the problems at the crime lab. Here’s a primer for anyone looking to keep tabs on the issue.
It’s going to take a long time for us to come back from this,” said Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. “We need a lot of eyes on the system. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”
Travis County prosecutors first started to get nervous about the lab’s performance in May of 2016 when lab supervisor Diana Morales contradicted herself while testifying during an ongoing sexual assault case. When prosecutors questioned why the sample size she was using was too small, she proceeded to take a calculator and multiply it by a factor of 30 to make up for the missing samples. “Incredulous, prosecutors on the case called an expert, who confirmed their suspicion that there was no science behind her calculation,” according to a report from the Capital Area Private Defender Service.
Morales’ very public mistakes at trial came as a surprise, considering the fact that Austin’s lab had consistently passed state audits with no problems. But it turned out that Morales’ testimony was just the tip of the iceberg, pointing to problems with the lab going back for almost a decade. It soon came out that Morales had also been in charge of a freezer that had failed for six days in March of 2016, putting hundreds of DNA samples at risk. An audit also revealed that former employees had made several complaints about Morales, as well as general testing procedures starting in 2010, but that those complaints had been dismissed.
Reviews of the lab have now shown that the lab’s director failed to adopt nationally recognized testing guidelines. Although these guidelines aren’t formally enforced, the majority of labs around the country had adapted to changes in forensic science that allowed them to make more accurate DNA matches.
“He knew that others in the forensic science community no longer considered it best practice. But he chose consistently to use it and defend it,” Eckhardt said.
As these revelations came to light last fall, the Austin Police Department promised several times that with some further training and an increase in the number of analysts the lab could be reopened. One of the most pressing issues was a backlog of over 4,000 DNA samples from sexual assault cases going back to the 1990s. Advocates had confronted city officials on behalf of survivors who had been waiting for some action on their cases for decades.
APD hired a new lab director, Scott Milne, in November of 2016. But even this decision quickly blew up in their faces when it came out that Milne, who only had a bachelor’s degree in forensic chemistry, had done poorly in his forensics science classes in college. Milne was placed on leave for several months and finally paid $57,500, in addition to the $37,000 in salary he had made while on leave, to resign from his position without suing APD last April.
Despite the urgency of addressing the mounting sexual assault cases, APD conceded that it had lost faith in the DNA lab’s employees and permanently closed the lab in December of 2016. The control of the lab was moved to the state’s Department of Public Safety and a work group of county and city representatives is guiding the reopening of a new lab, as well as pinpointing exactly what went wrong at the old one.
The fact that the lab is now closed hasn’t stopped one or two more scandals from erupting over the past few months. In June, it was revealed that over 850 DNA kits from sexual assaults had mold growing on them. While it now appears that none of the kits were damaged, advocates expressed concern that APD had taken months to alert stakeholders to the mold.
The co-chairs of SARRT, the Austin and Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team, wrote a letter to Council arguing that the city’s response to the issue amounted to the criminal justice system condoning sexual assault. The letter elicited a strong response from District Attorney Margaret Moore, among others, who defended the city’s efforts to address sexual assault.
Emily LeBlanc, a prominent advocate for survivors of sexual assault and a co-author of the letter, said she was surprised by the reaction. “For people doing the work all day every day, including the cops and prosecutors that handle these cases, (the systemic failure) is kind of a given. We don’t put a lot of people away for sexual assault.”
Despite these very public stumbles, those involved with opening the new lab have all said they feel hopeful about the work that has been done over the past year, and especially about the group of people who have come together to address the lab’s failures. And Austin isn’t the only city to endure a high-profile failure of its DNA lab. Cities including Houston, Boston and New York have had similar scandals. Even the FBI lab based in Washington, D.C. had its own scandal in 2015, pointing to nationwide flaws with the system of monitoring forensics labs.
But that still leaves Austin and Travis County with the task of reopening its lab, at a cost that could reach $14 million, as reported by the Austin American-Statesman last December. This July is the first month that the backlog has decreased. But as the city continues to review the thousands of cases that have possibly led to false convictions, it is also tasked with rebuilding trust in the criminal justice system.
“Right now we have patched the wound, but we have not cured the circumstances behind it yet,” Eckhardt said.
For those interested in the status of their own sexual assault report, you can now track your case by calling 512-974-5555 or emailing email@example.com.
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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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