Department of Public Safety to take over Austin DNA lab

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The Austin Police Department has officially forfeited control of its DNA lab to the state after the Austin City Council approved multiple agreements Thursday aimed at addressing its backlog. 

Nearly a year after the lab’s initial closure, city council members approved a 5-year, $4 million contract with the Texas Department of Public Safety, who will manage the DNA lab’s operations, including forensic analyses and oversight of employees. The newly named Department of Public Safety Capital Area Regional Lab will employ about nine staffers, some of whom may already work for DPS.

“Closing the lab was a necessary step to address an unacceptable and awful situation that developed years ago,” Council Member Greg Casar said in a written statement. “The items approved by the City Council will move us in the direction of justice.”

The council also approved an agreement in which the city and county will split the costs of both hiring consultants to study the lab’s problems as well as authorizing the Capital Area Private Defenders Service, a nonprofit legal defense, to begin analyzing DNA cases and contacting those whose convictions may have been affected by previous practices. 

The lab closure affected and delayed many violent crime cases, including that of Meechaiel Criner, the person accused of murdering dance freshman Haruka Weiser last April. 

Additionally, defendants in 2,200 cases have been notified that their cases may be eligible to be reviewed, according to the Austin American-Statesman. 

“In our country, we have a broken criminal justice system that has resulted in both innocent people being incarcerated and many others not being held accountable,” Casar said in his statement. “The years-long problems at the (APD) DNA Lab has exacerbated this situation in our community. It’s very possible, because of the lab’s failures, that people have been convicted on the basis of faulty evidence.”

A $1.3 million contract with Bode Cellmark Forensics, a private forensics analysis lab expected to test about 1,300 APD cases, was also approved.

APD’s DNA lab was shut down last June after a state audit by the Texas Forensic Science Commission discovered the lab was using improper and outdated methods. It was later revealed the lab had problems as early as 2009. Despite sending cases to DPS and to Dallas County labs, APD’s backlog has remained.

Interim Police Chief Brian Manley announced at a December press conference that APD was ceasing its efforts to reopen the lab. The decision came after DPS officials said they would no longer work with some of APD’s DNA specialists, who they had originally been retraining.

“(APD) is a leading agency across many fronts, but we have failed in the area that’s under question now … and for that, I take responsibility,” Manley said. 

City documents indicate the DPS lab is intended as a long-term solution.

“It is envisioned that this DPS lab capability will serve as the kernel for the future DNA analysis services,” a city document reads. 

There are currently 2,535 cases awaiting DNA testing, 1,686 of which are sexual assault cases, according to city documents. An additional 90 cases come in each month. 

APD plans to contract with three private labs to work in conjunction with the DPS lab. The department hopes to have all cases tested by April 2018, according to the Statesman.