AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s one step forward and two steps back for the Austin Police Department and its shuttered DNA lab. According to a new city memo, mold was recently discovered on DNA samples dating back to the 1990s and early 2000s at an evidence storage facility.
The department originally found out about the mold on April 25, 2017 when Signature Science, a lab that the city has contracted to conduct DNA analysis as its lab remains closed, notified them that at least one sexual assault kit sent to their lab seemed to have mold on it. The paperwork that arrived with the cases was also described as being “damp.”
The following day, an inspection of the evidence warehouse walk-in refrigerator revealed mold on some boxes in the back of the cooler. According to the memo, none of the evidence in this particular walk-in cooler had been tested and, therefore, “had never been considered as DNA evidence in the deliberation of any case already adjudicated.”
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said that while this development is concerning, it does not affect any current or active prosecutions.
“As we’ve gotten the facts about the situation, we’re not alarmed. Right now, there really isn’t any need to consider this something that’s a debacle or a catastrophe in any way. There is no present impact on any cases in this office,” said Moore.
The walk-in refrigerator in question is different than the storage freezer that broke last year.
An audit revealed of the 1,629 cases inspected, 780 had no visible mold and 849 had some signs of mold.
APD says they immediately hired a company to seal all seams on the outside of the refrigerator on May 3 to prevent moisture from entering. The department also installed a dehumidifier on June 2 to bring the humidity level down.
On June 21, Signature Science notified APD that “no issues were observed with the samples processed from the case originally reported to have mold.”
While APD says they were starting remediation efforts — with recommendations from the DPS Capital Area Lab Section Manager — to address the mold found on the cases, they have placed it on hold pending further research on mold remediation. A nationwide request has been sent out seeking information on the best way to address the mold issue.
Advocates for sexual assault survivors in Austin and Travis County say this is just another hit to the process, and the public’s trust in the process, after the problems last year at the APD DNA lab.
“The DNA lab is one piece of a very long system that victims have to navigate in order to seek any kind of justice after a sexual assault,” explained Emily LeBlanc, the co-chair of the Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team, or SARRT. “My initial reaction, of course, is concern — primarily for how this affects the public’s confidence in the process and potential victims’ willingness to come forward.”
LeBlanc says Texas has a sexual assault reporting rate of only about nine percent.
“Very few sexual assaults get reported to law enforcement to begin with, and when they do, it’s often years before they reach the prosecution stage. We tend to see victims drop out of that process along the way because of how difficult that is. So, putting one more barrier in an already lengthy, difficult, heart-wrenching process for victims of a really horrible crime, is likely to make that reporting number go down.”
The mold discovery, LeBlanc says, is a symptom of a larger problem.
“We have a justice system that allowed kits to sit and crimes go un-prosecuted since the ’90s, and those seem to be the kits that seem to be affected by this most recent development,” LeBlanc said.
She argues that something needs to be done.
“Whatever we can do to restore the public’s confidence, to be as transparent as possible, and to really process that evidence as quickly as possible so that we don’t see a three-year delay from the time someone’s assaulted to the time that case is taken to prosecution, the better off we’re going to be and the safer we’re going to be as a community.”
Survivors of sexual assault looking for information and resources, including legal aid, can call 1-844-303-7233 (SAFE).