Hundreds of DNA criminal cases from shuttered Austin Police DNA lab under review

Crime

AUSTIN (KXAN) — City of Austin and Travis County-commissioned public defenders have reviewed hundreds of criminal cases where the Austin Police Department DNA evidence lab may have made errors in its reporting.

The investigators say the process is restoring trust in the local criminal justice system.

In 2016, an audit found that APD lab technicians were using flawed science when calculating the odds of DNA results, possibly botching thousands of cases. Techs were also using expired materials during testing and there was at least one case where the evidence was contaminated.

Since the lab’s closure, APD has outsourced DNA testing and some other forensic needs to the Texas Department of Public Safety and private labs.

For the last several years, attorneys, investigators, paralegals and clerks have been combing through hundreds of closed juvenile and adult criminal cases.

They’re searching for errors the Austin Police Department and Department of Public Safety may have made in the evidence collection process to ensure everyone received a fair shot. Some of the cases go as far back as the year 2000.

The Capital Area Private Defender Service (CAPDS) which is investigating the cases involving adults said more than 600 people have requested their case get another look. When that happens, the organization will begin the process of reviewing the case, gathering evidence and possibly pursuing post-conviction litigation.

More than 300 cases have already been closed and somewhere between five and 10 cases related to the APD lab are being prepared for further litigation. Around four to six cases related to the DPS lab are also being considered for post-conviction litigation.

For the offenses involving kids under 18, the process moves a lot faster. Of the 148 cases that were identified as needing review, more than 76% have been closed. Thirty-two are being investigated and four may go through the appeal process.

The public defenders representing these clients say this is an unprecedented criminal justice process that provides closure to both the defendant and the victims of crimes.

“This is really something that had never been done in the country. We created a forensics project, able to look at those cases and ascertain what was going on in that laboratory, what happened and what was the root cause of those issues. And we’ve discovered there were some widespread systemic issues that we could address with the project,” said Travis County Juvenile Public Defender Kameron Johnson.

Johnson expects all of the juvenile cases to be processed within the next 12 moths. But there are still hundreds of adult cases to be combed through.

The CAPDS said funding from the interlocal agreement with the City of Austin and Travis County will continue. In addition to that, the organization will apply for a new grant which will partially fund one or more staff positions moving forward.

“We as a community benefit wholeheartedly from being able to ensure that we have confidence in our justice system.”

Kameron Johnson, Travis County Juvenile Public Defender

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