State commission notified about DNA lab Complaints
Authorities say group could order new testing
As lawyers and judges weighed the possible fallout of complaints about the Austin police crime lab, authorities said Thursday that they are alerting a state commission about the allegations and that the group could order DNA retesting.
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said that she is not yet prepared to request additional DNA testing for current or previous cases, but that doing so is in the purview of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
Lehmberg and Police Chief Art Acevedo also said they will jointly request that the commission coordinate an outside review of the lab or that they will seek an independent consultant themselves.
The move comes after former DNA analyst Cecily Hamilton lodged nu- merous allegations about the lab, including that one employee helped another pass proficiency tests. Police officials during the spring investigated her report and deemed the allegations unfounded.
They said the lab has undergone numerous audits by the FBI and a national crime lab association and that no deficiencies were found.
Hamilton resigned from the department in May.
Lehmberg said she thinks officials might have been required by law to notify the state forensics commission about the complaint.
According to state law, the commission investigates “any allegation of professional negligence or misconduct that would substantially affect the integrity of the results of a forensic analysis.”
State law says that the commission can order “retrospective re-examinations” of forensic evidence.
Commission Chairman and Williamson County District Attorney
John Bradley said information sent to the group likely will be reviewed by a screening committee made up of three of the nine commissioners. They will recommend how to proceed.
Bradley said the commission often waits on reviewing complaints until independent reviews are completed.
“In general, the commission wants to let these other processes play out so we have the most information available,” he said. “What we don’t want to do is interfere with that investigation.”
Bradley said most of the complaints the commission receives involve single cases in which DNA or other forensic evidence was used — not broad complaints about a lab’s operations.
During a news conference at police headquarters Thursday, Lehmberg and Acevedo said they have confidence in the lab and staff.
“I believe that when it is all said and done, there won’t be any problems,” Lehmberg said.
Prosecutors have begun notifying hundreds of defense attorneys involved in about 2,000 cases, many of which are still pending, in which DNA was a key part of the evidence.
Lehmberg said prosecutors are particularly concerned about cases that have already resulted in convictions and will notify incarcerated defendants through letters to state prisons.
“If you notify a defense lawyer who had a case that is disposed of, that defense lawyer may feel like he or she has no responsibility to do anything with it,” she said.
At the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, lawyers and judges were still trying to gauge the effect of the allegations.
Defense lawyer Jon Evans said regardless of whether the issues at the DNA lab are proved to be significant, savvy defense lawyers would use them to challenge the reliability of DNA evidence presented in future criminal trials.
Evans said lawyers would seize upon the allegations during cross-examination of DNA analysts in an attempt to discredit their testimony.
“Even if the science is good,” Evans said, “if the process and procedures are bad, (jurors) are going to doubt the results.”
State District Judge Mike Lynch said he fears that significant portions of future trials could be devoted to testimony about the reliability of DNA results.
“You are going to end up doing two trials instead of one,” Lynch said.
Judges have wide discretion in ruling whether to allow scientific evidence at trial. When questions are raised about the validity of science, they can exclude certain testimony or allow its presentation — and rely on defense lawyers to show any shortcomings — and let the jury make a conclusion on its validity.
State District Judge Julie Kocurek said her initial feel- ing about any issues at the Austin police DNA lab is that “it would go to the weight” of the testimony and would not be significant enough to keep the testimony from a jury.
Kocurek said that because of the recently disclosed issues at the laboratory, she agreed with a defense request to delay a sexual assault trial set for next week so the lawyer could review the hundreds of pages of documents the district attorney’s office has provided him related to the allegations.
The lawyer in that case — Stephen Orr — is also seeking for DNA results to be kept from the jury in another sexual assault case. That second case is set for trial July 19.
On Monday, state District Judge Bob Perkins will hold a hearing on Orr’s motion.
Kocurek said she will monitor the results of that hearing.
John Bradley says panel will recommend next step
Rosemary Lehmberg DA will seek outside probe
Art Acevedo Chief has confidence in lab, staff.