AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Travis County District Attorney’s Office sent a letter to the Forensic Science Department of the City of Austin asking for an update in 30 days on how the department has worked to remedy “recent disclosure and protocol violations.”

According to the letter, the DA’s office was recently notified of “potential significant violations at the Department,” which primarily centers around material the forensic science department has “previously improperly withheld.”

The letter cites what the DA calls “potentially exculpatory material” including:

  • An email from a supervisor detailing lack of confidence in an analyst to perform their job duties
  • Criminal conduct allegations by staff members
  • Withholding errors discovered by staff members
  • Lack of supervision which resulted in evidence not entering a chain of custody for two years

The DA’s office said these potential infractions have the capacity to put past convictions at risk of being overturned, according to the letter.

“In order for our office to continue to sponsor analysts in court from the Department, TCDAO must have confidence that evidence provided by the Department is done so consistent with State and Federal law,” the letter finished.

In a statement, the City said: “We value our on-going partnership with Travis County District Attorney’s Office in criminal justice matters. We received their letter on Friday and are looking into the concerns expressed in the letter.”  

Austin Criminal Defense Attorney Logan Campbell, with Gergen, Hale & Campbell (GHC) Law Firm said this information is concerning.

“On a case with an assault victim who may receive justice initially, they’re not receiving justice, then if evidence wasn’t provided to the accused, and then they have their case overturned on appeal,” Campbell said. “From a prosecutor’s perspective, that’s certainly concerning.

History of the forensic lab

Starting in October 2021, the forensic science lab became independent from the Austin Police Department. This means it functions as another public safety agency – just like the fire department or EMS.

The turmoil involving the lab began in 2016, when an audit found lab technicians used expired materials and flawed science while processing DNA, which may have botched thousands of cases. The lab closed and the police department contracted out forensics services through private companies as well as the Texas Department of Public Safety.

As part of the Reimagining Public Safety Initiative, city council voted in 2021 to move move $12 million out of the Austin Police Department’s budget in order to create an independent forensics lab. But because that move included taking funding from APD, it ended up retroactively violating a state law that went into effect. During the FY2023 budget talks, however, city council was able to move things around the balance making the lab a stand-alone operation while staying in compliance with that law.

This is a developing story.