Po­lice DNA lab­o­ra­tory to get ex­ter­nal re­view

thou­sands of cases could be af­fected by for­mer em­ployee’s claims of lax train­ing, qual­ity con­trol

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Tony Plo­het­ski and Steven Krey­tak

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.”

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