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

Stephens & Associates hosts clinical trials for pharmaceutical, device and cosmetic industries.

Stephens & Associates hosts clinical trials for pharmaceutical, device and cosmetic industries.

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.”



The Atlas 14 rainfall study found Austin to be at a much higher flood risk than previously understood.
Acknowledging expanded risk, Austin moves to prohibit additional density in city’s flood-prone areas

A recent federal flood risk study found Austin's flood risk to be significantly higher than previously understood.

The Dove Springs Recreation Center could be named after current Travis County Constable George Morales III. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Dove Springs Recreation Center could be renamed after Constable George Morales

The Dove Springs Recreation Center could be renamed after Constable George Morales, although some residents oppose changing the park's name at all.

The city of Austin authorized the purchase of a Rodeway Inn at 2711 S. I-35 on Nov. 14. The city plans to convert the property into a homeless shelter. (Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)
City Council green lights $8 million Rodeway Inn plan for homeless shelter transition, vows to address crime in the area

South Austin neighbors raised concerns that criminal activity in the area will put homeless individuals who enter the shelter at risk.

New Brightway insurance office opens in South Austin

Brightway, The Trusted Agency opened a new office in late October.

Marucci Clubhouse baseball facility opens in Southwest Austin

Marucci Clubhouse opened its new Southwest Austin location in October.

Lady Bird Lake at Congress Avenue in Austin. Since late July, parts of the lake have been off limits due to high concentrations of toxic "blue-green" algae. (Courtesy Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)
Toxic algae blooms are becoming more common, scientists say

Months have passed, but the capital city still has signs up warning of ongoing dangerous conditions in Lady Bird Lake.

Community members examine updated zoning maps at land development code town hall in October.
Land development code rewrite heads to City Council for final approval, marking home stretch of nearly 7-year process

Austin's long-awaited land development code rewrite is heading to City Council for final approval.

Crews work on updating a section of I-35 in Central Texas (Courtesy TxDOT)
Central Texas transportation agencies investing millions in I-35 for new lanes, intersection improvements aimed at aiding mobility

About 20 miles of I-35 through Central Texas will see an infusion of $400 million in state and federal funding to add one to two additional lanes in an effort to improve mobility.

Sage Blossom Massage's new Oak Hill location features a salt room. Courtesy Sage Blossom Massage
Sage Blossom Massage now open in Oak Hill

Sage Blossom Massage's new Oak Hill location at 6705 W. Hwy. 290, Austin, opened in early October. Sage …

A photo of the Dripping Springs City Council.
Dripping Springs City Council opts for partial refund to Mark Black in wedding venue fee dispute

Dripping Springs City Council voted Nov. 12 to refund $2,121 of Mark Black's $12,800 request.

Delia Garza speaks to her constituents at a town hall meeting in 2017.
Austin Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza says she will not seek re-election as Travis County attorney rumors heat up

Austin's mayor pro tem will not seek reelection to her Southeast Austin district seat in 2020.

Deece Eckstein at the Nov. 12 Travis County Commissioners Court meeting
Travis County intergovernmental relations officer announces retirement, triggers "aggressive" hiring schedule

Deece Eckstein, Travis County's inaugural intergovernmental relations officer, will retire at the end of the year.

Back to top