Hundreds of cases still under review more than two years after Austin's DNA lab closure

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Hundreds of cases remain under the microscope as local entities try to determine whether DNA might have played a role in convictions.

“This is a work in progress,” Travis County Assistant District Attorney John Lopez said. “We want to make sure no one was wrongly convicted. We’re all trying to get to the same end.”

To date, Lopez’s office has identified about 180 Travis County cases in which DNA that passed through the Austin Police Department's DNA lab could have played a role in a conviction, he said. As of Jan. 25, the district attorney’s office had reviewed 884 of 1,833 cases, he said.

Travis County’s district attorney office, juvenile public defender and nonprofit Capital Area Private Defender Service continue to re-evaluate cases called into question after the shuttering of APD's DNA lab. The lab closed in summer 2016 due to a number of issues detailed in a Texas Forensics Science Commission audit.

“Justice must be served,” Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “That’s the goal. Not just convictions.”

Legal review of past convictions
After the audit identified a range of issues, the district attorney’s office sent notifications to all defendants whose cases might be affected.

Approximately 600 of those defendants contacted Capital Area Private Defender Service, or CAPDS, requesting to have their cases reviewed, said Bradley Hargis, deputy director of the nonprofit.

CAPDS continues to conduct materiality reviews—assessments of past convictions that evaluate whether a case’s outcome might have hinged on DNA evidence, Hargis said. As of Jan. 18, about half the cases are in review. The group is beginning to develop writs of habeas corpus—legal means used to determine if a person's imprisonment is lawful.

At the same time, the district attorney’s office is separately completing its own review of 1,833 cases from the APD lab, Lopez said.

Meanwhile, the juvenile public defender is reviewing 107 cases in which the accused was between 10 and 17 years old at the time of the offense, Juvenile Public Defender Kameron Johnson said. Of those, 16 cases are closed, 10 are pending closure, 13 are under investigation and 68 are in review, Johnson said.

Scientific review of specific cases
As they conclude materiality reviews, the district attorney and CAPDS send select cases to the University of North Texas Health Science Center. UNT has been hired to reanalyze cases by reviewing the original data from the Austin Police Department.

Originally, CAPDS and the district attorney’s office estimated sending 10 cases to UNT per month. In reality, the pace has been much slower, Lopez said.

“It may take a couple more years, depending on how many cases we identify and how long it takes UNT to get the report back to us,” Lopez said.

As of Jan. 18, the center has completed reviews of 53 cases. Three analyses are pending.

CAPDS has filed writ of habeas corpus applications in 11 cases based on recommendations from UNT. In 23 cases, the university determined an inconclusive result. This finding does not automatically invalidate these cases because other evidence—DNA-based or otherwise—may be available.

Analysis of what went wrong
The University of Pennsylvania Quattrone Center is addressing the Texas Forensics Science Commission audit and identifying best practices for the future, said Roger Jeffries, county executive for justice and public safety.

Quattrone is currently completing interviews with various stakeholders associated with the DNA lab closure, Jeffries said. To date, 24 of 45 interviews are complete. These are anticipated to last through March.

In April, May and June, stakeholder meetings are planned to discuss contributing factors, potential recommendations and confirm final recommendations.

“This is a forensic scientific endeavor,” Eckhardt said. “I want us to stay open to what Quattrone brings to us. We have really struggled in this community with the forensic sciences and how they should be managed.”


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