Police DNA laboratory to get external review
thousands of cases could be affected by former employee’s claims of lax training, quality control
Austin’s police DNA lab will be the subject of an independent review, potentially affecting thousands of criminal cases, following complaints about the lab’s opera- tions by a former employee.
Travis County prosecutors have begun notifying hundreds of defense attorneys about the allegations by former DNA analyst Cecily Hamilton, which include allowing workers to perform tasks they are not capable of doing, documents show.
Prosecutors are still seeking to confirm the number of affected cases — they think it could reach 2,000 — and how many have been resolved or are pending. The cases involve all classes of felonies in which DNA evidence is collected, including murders and sexual assaults.
“We have work to do, but we are doing it as quickly as possible and as thoroughly as possible,” District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said. “Any time an allegation is made concerning the integrity of evidence in either a present case or a past case, we are required by law to turn that evidence over to the defense and let them see it and use it as they see fit.”
Constitutional protections require defendants to receive all information that could raise questions about their guilt or impeach
the credibility of prosecution witnesses.
The issue has been cited in at least one court case.
Defense lawyer Stephen Orr raised the concerns at the DNA lab in a motion Wednesday to bar prosecutors from using DNA evidence against his client, who is set to go to trial July 19 on aggravated sexual assault charges.
Orr’s client, Randall Scott Jordan, is an ex-con accused of raping a woman in a South Congress Avenue motel in July 2009, leaving her with a broken nose, deep bite marks on her nose, severely swollen eyes and a broken thumb, according to a police affidavit.
“It’s up to them to prove (the DNA testing) is all done correctly,” said Orr, who has been given hundreds of pages related to concerns at the DNA lab. “And from what I’ve seen, there are serious questions that happened.”
State District Judge Bob Perkins set a hearing on Orr’s motion for Monday, Orr said.
Lehmberg and Police Chief Art Acevedo said they remain confident in the work of the Austin police crime lab. They said Hamilton’s allegations were reviewed internally during the spring and that her complaints were deemed unfounded.
Acevedo also said that the crime lab has recently undergone reviews by the FBI and the American Society of Crime Lab Directors. Both found no deficiencies.
“With that said, we are going to, out of an overabundance of caution and in the spirit of transparency,” seek the additional review, Acevedo said.
Authorities were still trying Wednesday to determine who to hire for the independent review but hope to decide this week. They have sought names of experts from defense attorneys, including those who specialize in forensic evidence.
Hamilton, who resigned in May, lodged multiple complaints in a lengthy Feb. 11 memo to the department, including a hostile work environment, retaliation and “quality assurance issues.”
According to records, she said she thought the lab’s training program was poor and needs updating, that the facility inconsistently handled technical issues among analysts and — one of the most serious charges — that a supervisor helped an analyst on competency tests.
Department officials said lab staffers began reviewing her complaints immediately and presented a final report to department officials in March.
“The quality issues have been investigated and there is no proof that these allegations have any validity,” lab manager William Gibbens wrote.
The report also said that Hamilton violated departmental rules requiring employees to be honest and not to retaliate against or harass co-workers.
“It is imperative that Ms. Hamilton be held accountable for her false accusations,” it said. “False accusations such as these can cause irreparable damage to the reputation of the laboratory.”
Hamilton could not be reached for comment.
Lehmberg said prosecutors who had been in touch with police officials notified her June 23 of the issues. Two assistants met with police several times over the next few days, she said.
Last week, Lehmberg called a mandatory meeting with more than 80 prosecutors during which she alerted them of Hamilton’s allegations. She instructed them to notify defense attorneys involved in any cases with DNA evidence.
How defense lawyers will use Hamilton’s complaint will likely vary, Lehmberg said.
“I have confidence in the lab, because I have confidence in the analysts that are there and in the audits that have been done,” she said. “But, defense attorneys will take this information and use it to the extent that they can.”
On Wednesday, Lehmberg and some of her assistants met with three longtime local defense lawyers — Betty Blackwell, Samuel Bassett and David Sheppard.
Bassett, former chairman of the state Forensic Science Commission, said Lehmberg wanted the defense lawyers’ input on the situation.
Bassett said it’s too early to tell how significant any problem is. He said lawyers will have to make decisions on “whether or not it is important to that particular case.”
“Worst-case scenario for the prosecution would be that there’s a finding that standards in the lab were not reliable,” Bassett said.
Sheppard, a co-director of the University of Texas School of Law’s Actual Innocence Clinic, said: “This may turn out to be something important; it may not turn out to be a hill of beans. I don’t know if any of us are going to know until an independent audit is done.”