DNA lab closure, indigent defense: Travis County tackles justice issues

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Travis County commissioners received several presentations about criminal justice issues on Tuesday. Commissioners voted to approve an additional $1.6 million for indigent defense—a system to ensure representation for all defendants, regardless of income or social status—and extended an interlocal agreement with the city of Austin concerning the Austin Police Department’s DNA Lab closure.

Indigent defense

Attorney fees and expert witness expenses account for the additional $1.6 million budget request, according to the county’s planning and budget office. The expenses will be incurred this fiscal year, but payment will not be made until FY 2018-19.

Specifically, the county has seen a higher-than-usual number of capital murder cases, a larger-than-usual volume of indigent clients and significantly more jury trials and expert witness expenses than in the previous year, said Gregg Cox, director of operations for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.

Expert witnesses are typically scientists, doctors and other experts needed at trial to assist in the defense of indigent clients. The need for expert witnesses has increased based on several factors, according to the the presentation at today’s meeting. Some of the factors include a greater number of trials using experts, per best practices and the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab issues.

DNA lab closure

Travis County extended a March 2017 interlocal agreement with the City of Austin to share costs related to the Austin Police Department DNA lab closure. The closure—in summer 2016—was a result of a number of serious issues uncovered by a Texas Forensics Science Commission audit. The interlocal agreement is comprised of two separate professional service agreements.

“There are major justice consequences as well as financial consequences [related to the APD lab closure],” Eckhardt said. “We are working in collaboration, and we have distinct roles. There’s a lot to learn from this process that can be applied to other processes where we have a system of shared responsibilities.”

The current agreement was set to expire Sept. 30. The extension approved today adds a one-year term, plus three additional one-year terms, subject to continued funding by the county and the city.

The first agreement involves consultants—the University of Pennsylvania Quattrone Center and the University of North Texas Health Science Center—that have been hired to address the audit report, evaluate impacts to DNA evidence in Travis County criminal cases and identify best practices for the future.

The contract with Quattrone Center is authorized for $400,000. To date, the city has paid $100,000, and the county will reimburse the City half the amount, or $50,000, per the agreement.

The contract with University of North Texas Health Science Center is authorized in an amount not to exceed $100,000. No invoices have been received to date, according to county documents.

The second professional service agreement is between the county and Capital Area Private Defender Service, or CAPDS, that has been hired to review the legal materiality of DNA evidence processed by the lab and used to secure convictions in Travis County courts. The county has spent $612,663 through March 30, and the City has reimbursed half, per the agreement.

“I think what the public really wants to know is that we are actively pursuing justice,” Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion said. “I want to be absolutely rock-solid on that.”

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