AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The forensic scientists who process evidence from around the state rarely get the spotlight. They are no less proud of their work than the rest of us.
On this National Forensic Science Week, the Texas Department of Public Safety opened the doors to its main crime lab in Austin to share the inner workings of its crime solving process.
Hundreds of employees test guns, put drugs, dirt and hair under the microscope, and analyze blood samples.
“Most of our evidence is submitted for either drugs or for toxicology,” laboratory manager Melissa Valadez said. “We get quite a few DNA submissions as well.”
Valadez said the agency has nine or 10 categories of forensics that are tested, including firearms, latent prints, breath alcohol testing, trace evidence, seized drug analysis, digital multimedia evidence, forensic biology and DNA submissions.
“We get about 1,000 drug cases submitted every month,” she explained. Those cases range from pills to powders.
“If it’s suspected that there’s a crime that’s occurred and (law enforcement agencies) may not know what the substance is, they will submit it here for identification,’ she said.
Forensic scientists also examine evidence from reported sexual assaults across the state.
New state law, effective Sept. 1, stalls the clock on statute of limitations on sexual assault cases until a rape kit is tested. House Bill 8 also extends statute of limitations to a decade. It was named for Lavinia Masters, a Dallas woman who was raped as a teenager. Her rape kit sat untested on a shelf for 21 years.
“Laws such as this one give every victim the opportunity by getting these rape kit logs off the shelf and giving someone their life back,” Masters said in February when the legislation was introduced.
State Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, wrote the bill.
“Every rape kit is not just a number sitting on a shelf, every rape kit represents a survivor, every rape kit tells a story,” Neave said.
The legislation passed with broad support in both the Texas Senate and Texas House. The new change also requires law enforcement agencies to test kits sooner.
“Requiring that you, within 90 days, test any new rape kit so there never will be an embarrassing two year back log on rape kits in Texas,” House Speaker Dennis Bonnen said in May.
DPS asked for additional funding to beef up staffing for the volume of cases the agency processes. Lawmakers appropriated $5.8 million for the crime lab in the state’s supplemental budget bill.
‘Our submissions do increase every year,” Valadez said. “Right now— we’ve got new folks that are in training and once they’re all trained – we should be fully staffed to be able to accommodate all those cases that are coming in every month.”
DPS has 15 crime labs across the state, but the one at agency headquarters in Austin is the only one with the capability to test for gunshot primer residue. All toxicology results from DPS investigations also come from the lab in Austin.
“Smaller labs maybe only analyze for drug evidence and blood alcohol evidence,” Valadez mentioned.
The Austin location is now home to the fire debris investigatory department. That division was formerly housed with the Texas Department of Insurance. Operations officially moved in at the start of the year.