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County approves half a million for better DNA analysis

Wednesday, December 1, 2021 by Seth Smalley

The Travis County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to approve a three-year grant award for $573,637 to expand DNA testing ability at the Austin Police Department. The money, sourced from the Department of Justice, will also cover the cost of hiring two staff attorneys for the District Attorney’s Office, who will work in tandem with the APD crime lab and the Department of Public Safety on DNA issues.

The quality of DNA testing at APD has, in previous years, been put into question following the results of an independent audit, which uncovered hundreds of cases of DNA result miscalculations as well as some instances of DNA contamination.

“Given what happened to the DNA lab, I think there is a need to rebuild trust in the community,” Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion said. “It’ll give us the tools, the personnel, all of the materials that are necessary to continue to reach out into the community and rebuild that trust, because it was damaged significantly and from top to bottom.”

Bradley Hargis, with the Capital Area Private Defender Service, said CAPDS will be hiring one staff attorney who will work in tandem with another staff position being created in the public safety department.

According to Hargis, the attorney will focus on determining whether DNA evidence is materially relevant to specific convictions.

“That’s done by reviewing a number of materials, trial transcripts, offense reports, and other documents that were created by the police department and the DA office,” said Stacie Lieberman, with CAPDS.

The DA’s office will additionally be hiring legal counsel as well as putting $40,000 of the grant money to outsource DNA testing to independent DNA labs.

“We’ll be using our portion of the grant to find a full-time attorney to assist in analyzing materiality information discovery,” said Saran Crayton, with the District Attorney’s Office.

The grant does not allow funds to be used toward DNA litigation cases, Crayton pointed out.

“This will allow our office to hopefully hire a more experienced attorney, grade two or grade three, to assist in the process,” Crayton said.

Commissioners unanimously approved the award, commending the organizations for securing the grant.

“These are great grants to go after and I’m delighted we’re going to be able to have more assistance in determining if the convictions were proper through use of DNA,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said.

“I mean, $573,000 is a huge grant that represents to me a lot of teamwork and collaboration,” Commissioner Ann Howard said, adding, “And you know, money doesn’t come easy.”

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