AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County received more than $500,000 in grant funding to help the district attorney’s office and its partners investigate cases potentially impacted by the malpractices at the Austin Police DNA lab before it was closed.
The contract with the Department of Justice will allow staff to expand testing capacity for the DNA review process and will provide two more attorneys to do the work. They will largely dig through case files and material evidence to see if convictions based on DNA were lawful or not.
“From victim to defendant, to just members of the community and the jurors — nobody wants someone punished or convicted based on faulty science,” said Bradley Hargis, executive director of the Capital Area Private Defender Services (CAPDS).
In 2016, an audit found Austin Police Department 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.
For the last several years, attorneys, investigators, paralegals and clerks have been combing through hundreds of closed juvenile and adult criminal cases. CAPDS is handling the review of adult cases.
“These case reviews are time-consuming. They are challenging. You are going back through, sometimes, very old cases,” Hargis said.
They’re searching for errors APD and the Department of Public Safety may have made in the evidence collection process to ensure everyone received due process. Some of the cases go as far back as 2000.
Since the lab’s closure, APD has outsourced DNA testing and some other forensic needs to Texas DPS and private labs.
CAPDS is also reviewing some cases handled by DPS.
Hargis said the grant will allow them to broaden the scope of their material case reviews and speed up the process.
“For those people who are waiting for answers, who want relief if they are entitled to it,” he explained.
“Given what happened to the DNA lab, I think there is a need to rebuild trust among the community,” Commissioner Jeff Travillion said on Tuesday.
As commissioners court voted to accept the grant, Travillion noted this was a step in the right direction to rebuilding that trust.
“We want to be a model for fairness, and for making sure that we don’t leave any stone unturned and that anybody that is involved in our criminal justice system can expect a fair shake,” he said.
The grant will last three years. Hargis said they hope to fill the positions by January.