The latest audit of the Austin Police Department’s crime lab would read as a comedy of errors, if the stakes weren’t so high.
concerns in the report released last fall are simpler to fix –
equipment failures or cross-contaminating evidence. Reading further
though, the lab had flaws in many of its most fundamental operations. It
was not only using scientifically unsound testing procedures, but its
staff was often not even following those low standards.
disturbing as these revelations are, the Austin lab is not alone.
Similar scandals have occurred in labs in major cities across the
country, including neighboring Houston, as well as St. Paul, Detroit,
New York and Philadelphia. In 2015, the FBI lab in Washington, D.C.
admitted “that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave
flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence”
over a period of 20 years, according to the Washington Post. Those trials included 32 death sentences.
officials have stepped forward to address the problems with the Austin
lab – committing $10 million and counting to the project by the end of
2018. But these measures may not be enough. Although DNA evidence seems
objective, in reality, it is subject to the same biases that plague the
rest of the U.S. criminal justice system. And getting to the root of
these issues will require a national response.
County Judge Sarah Eckhardt
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt has emphasized the need for
“eyes on the system” operating underneath the belief that “sunshine is
the best disinfectant.” In doing so, Eckhardt is pointing out one of the
fundamental problems Austin will have going forward. While the city has
taken on the responsibility to turn the lab around, local officials
don’t have the scientific background to monitor forensic analysis.
you mix police work and science, they don’t always speak the same
language,” said Emily LeBlanc, a leading advocate for survivors of
sexual assault in Austin who has been closely involved in reforming the
In fact, the auditing agencies designated to watch the
lab in the past missed the warning signs for almost a decade. Before
2016, the Austin lab had been passing audits with no problems. It was
not until lab staff members defended
their use of unsound testing procedures that the Texas Forensic Science
Commission was alerted to the problems there and instigated a new
At their meeting on Aug. 18 of this year, members of the
commission tried to understand how the Austin lab could have been
passing its regular audits. Pamela Sale, vice president of ANAB, the
national accrediting body that had been monitoring the lab, explained
that the auditors had done nothing wrong during their past reviews of
the lab’s work.
“I know it’s going to sound shocking when I say
it,” Sale said at the meeting. “But there were no non-conformities with
our (auditing) process.” She went on to clarify that the auditing
process could be improved, but that one of the issues is that there is
no commonly agreed-upon set of standards that forensics labs around the
country have to follow. Instead, there are informal guidelines that labs
can choose to follow or not.
Mike Coble, a DNA expert, clarified
further. Coble works in the Applied Genetics Group at the National
Institute of Standards and Technology, which is responsible for setting
national forensics testing guidelines and training crime labs to follow
them. He said that while most of the labs around the country attempt to
follow best practices, auditors don’t actually monitor their testing
procedures. The only requirement auditors check on is whether the lab
has a testing protocol.
“The protocol could be excerpts from
‘Harry Potter,’” Coble said. Beyond that, the auditors “don’t have the
teeth” to say whether the testing protocol is actually effective. The
forensics science community is working on giving the auditors more
power, but, until then, the labs are only monitored using the informal
guidelines in place.
Until that happens, DNA evidence is far less
objective than most people realize. A summary of the Austin crime lab
audit from the Capital Area Private Defender Service emphasizes just how
unreliable it can be. The report notes that labs are often working with
incomplete, low-quality DNA from “grimy, chaotic crime scenes.” And
then analysts must sort out who the DNA belongs to from several unknown
The procedures the Austin lab was using led analysts
to lean towards suspects already identified by police, instead of taking
into account all possible suspects the DNA could point to. While this
type of confirmation bias is particularly disturbing, analyzing DNA is
often more subjective than it seems. This can be a particular problem
when it comes to juries, who often have the impression that DNA evidence
“It’s extremely important to get (DNA evidence)
right because people do watch too much ‘CSI’ and put a lot on that
(evidence),” Eckhardt said. “If it’s not scientifically defensible
that’s a big problem.”
But despite these fundamental questions
about the reliability of forensic testing, Austin officials must do the
best they can to rebuild the credibility of the local criminal justice
system. They are left with almost 2,000 people who may have been
convicted of crimes using flawed evidence, and that will take a long
time to come back from. It will also take a coordinated response from
people throughout the criminal justice community. But the officials
involved seem to know how high the stakes are.
“This isn’t a luxury item,” Eckhardt said. “We have an obligation to see that justice is served.”
This is the second part in a series about Austin’s DNA Lab. Part One in the series is online here.
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story has been changed since publication to reflect the fact that the
FBI laboratory was never closed, as was originally reported.