Why DNA Evidence is Less Reliable than People Believe

By Peek & Toland on January 25, 2018

DNA evidence has been central to criminal trials for almost 40 years. Many people are led to believe it’s almost foolproof. This is a dangerous presumption. In fact, DNA evidence is riddled with potential flaws.

An article in Popular Science cited a Gallup poll that found 58 percent of people believe DNA evidence is extremely reliable.

This perception has been challenged by recent revelations. Two years ago, Frontline noted how DNA evidence can lead juries astray and lead to wrongful convictions.

That’s not to say DNA is inherently unreliable. Compared to many other forensic techniques that have been debunked, DNA has a high accuracy rate.

DNA evidence may not be reliable

DNA evidence may be unreliable

DNA is certainly unequivocal under optimal conditions. The Popular Science article says when investigators have large quantities of a suspect’s well-preserved genes if it’s obvious how DNA arrived at the crime scene, and labs sequencing the sample don’t make any mistakes, the evidence should be foolproof.

Unfortunately, these optimal conditions are met in very few cases. Often when DNA evidence is presented to a court, there is some ambiguity. Juries may not realize that gray areas exist.

The article points out DNA samples from crime scenes are imperfect and the DNA breaks down. This makes it extremely challenging to get a 100 percent match.

But when a match exists, it’s not possible to know how the crime scene DNA sample got there in the first place. Scientists are not sure how DNA travels.

Many of the body’s cells contain DNA. We shed it wherever we go. The article points out that under certain circumstances, these cells can end up in places we have never been.

Also, it’s not possible to know from DNA how much earlier it was deposited. So DNA at a murder scene left there six months earlier may become implicated in the investigation.

Over the last three years, officials became increasingly concerned about how DNA evidence was treated in labs.

Two years ago, The FBI informed crime labs across the nation that it discovered mistakes in data used by forensic scientists. The errors related to the chances that genetic evidence found at a crime scene matched a particular individual in thousands of cases the Washington Post reported.

Initially, the FBI discounted fears that the flawed methodology could undermine cases. Jurors were informed the chances that DNA belonged to anyone other than the defendant if there was a match was one in more than a billion. It later emerged that the odds were more like one in 100 in many cases, a marked difference.

Austin Police Department’s crime lab faced recalculating statistics on about half of almost 1,300 Travis County cases. Problems at the lab that resulted in its closure last year exacerbated the issues.

If you have been charged with a crime you should be aware any forensic evidence against you may be unreliable. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can expose flaws in this evidence. Please call us at (512) 474-4445.

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Austin DNA Lab Flouted Standards for Years, Report Finds

By Peek & Toland on May 29, 2017

We have written before about the closure of the Austin DNA lab and speculation that it would open again in early 2017.

However, hopes for a speedy reopening of the lab have been derailed. A recent report found the lab bucked DNA standards for years but was given a pass.

The new set of DNA guidelines that were drawn up in 2010, were noted in the Statesman.

The influential Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods came to the conclusion that analysts should concentrate on the quality of a sample as opposed to the quantity of the evidence gathered at a crime scene, before deciding if they could confidently create a genetic profile.

The Austin DNA lab closed last year following concenrs

Austin DNA lab is under fire

The article highlighted the little-known but alarming fact that forensic labs in the United States are not formally regulated. Instead, they are subject to a set of evolving standards.

The working group in tandem with the National Institute of Standards and Technology drew up best practices.

Over the following five years, the organizations held many training sessions, visited labs and carried out surveys.

The experts warned using older methods of DNA analysis led laboratories to be overconfident in their findings,. The result was improper criminal prosecutions. The report said by 2015, every lab in the United States adopted the improved methods except the Austin DNA lab.

The lab in Austin appeared to be working fast on its caseload. Then last summer, former Austin police chief Art Acevedo said the lab would close temporarily to allow analysts to correct problems uncovered in the reviews.

Austin DNA Lab Closure Could be Indefinite

The police department ordered the closure after concerns were raised by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. It found a lack of properly trained supervision and noted the requirement for the staff at the lab to learn the new federally required way of verifying DNA evidence.

Although the lab was meant to be closed temporarily, in December officials said it would close indefinitely.

The Statesman article cited interviews with workers that suggested the lab’s problems went back long before 2016.

Donna Stanley, the former DPS analyst originally hired to get the Austin lab off the ground more than 10 years ago, said inadequate methods were used for years.

The Statesman article warned a cluster of forensic facilities in Texas and across the United States suffered failures in the last decade. Shortcomings ranged from missing or stolen evidence, to substandard science and even faked results. These scandals have raised doubts about the science used to secure thousands of convictions.

Of just over 300 Texans exonerated for crimes, 142 — nearly half — were convicted based on misleading or false forensic evidence, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

A report on Channel 5 quoted police sources saying the DNA lab in Austin may not now re-open until 2018.

As experienced Austin criminal defense lawyers, we are alarmed by these revelations. If you believe your conviction is based on faulty forensic evidence, please contact us here.

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Austin Struggles to Process DNA Backlog After Lab Closure

By Peek & Toland on March 9, 2017

Austin is struggling with a DNA backlog more than eight months after its police lab was closed on the back of a host of problems.

The Austin Police Department closed down its DNA lab in the summer of 2016 party due to a lack of trained staff and the use of faulty and outdated processes. The reasons for this action were worrying to us as criminal defense lawyers in Austin.

An article in the Austin Chronicle highlighted some of the problems this closure has caused for those involved in the administration of justice in the city.

In the absence of a properly functioning lab, a DNA backlog has built up. The city and Travis County struggled to process DNA evidence in many criminal cases. The result was delays for criminal defense lawyers, district prosecutors, survivors of alleged sexual assaults and defendants alike.

Criminal justice agencies in Austin struggle with DNA backlog

Closure of Austin lab caused DNA backlog

In September, we detailed how concerns about the staffing at the Austin lab led to its temporary closure.

The shutdown has since prompted the #EndtheBacklog campaign. Sexual assault campaigners are concerned the backlog in the testing of rape kids, which is already high, will skyrocket while the lab is closed.

This is also a concern for criminal defense lawyers because the testing of these kits can exonerate defendants who have been wrongly convicted.

The Chronicle article stated over the past two years the backlog at the lab increased to 484 untested kits. Another 126 sexual assault cases are pending that contain other forms of DNA evidence.

Over the summer the city council came under concerted pressure to tackle the rape kit backlog.

In September, as the city worked on its 2017 fiscal budget, it approved an additional $1.4 million in funding for the lab.

It was hoped the money would help get the lab operational again and tackle the DNA backlog. The lab was slated to re-open in February. The additional money would increase the number of kits workers can test each month. Before the Austin Police Department ordered the shutdown of the lab in June, analysts were testing about 40 kits a month. At the SAFE Alliance clinic where many kits are collected, one or two people were requesting tests every day.

There are also hundreds of kits that have not been tested for at least a year. Many of these were sent to a lab in Utah.

The issue of untested rape kits remains a concern for everyone involved in the criminal justice system in and around Austin. However, the lack of expertise at the lab carrying out the vital work of examining DNA was also deeply worrying.

If you have been convicted of a crime in or around Austin, contact our experienced criminal defense lawyers at (512) 474-4445.

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Austin Police Close Down DNA Lab Due to Shortage of Trained Staff

By Peek & Toland on September 12, 2016

DNA is seen as the holy grail of evidence gathering. If DNA at a crime scene matches a defendant’s, it’s usually treated as concrete evidence of guilt.

But recent revelations in Texas and elsewhere about the reliability of DNA evidence undermine its ability to give an exact match.

DNA is the hold grail of criminal evidence

In Austin, concerns about the lack of a properly trained staff closed the DNA lab.

The temporary shutdown was noted in the Statesman. Austin Police Department ordered the closure amid fears raised by the Texas Forensic Science Commission about the lack of properly trained supervision and the requirement for staff to learn a new federally required way of verifying DNA evidence.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo referred to a lack of trained staff after the death of the lab director. The lab may be closed for the rest of the year. He admitted the lab struggled to stay up to date with new DNA standards.

Problems with DNA evidence became more apparent over the last two years. The FBI told crime labs across the nation that it discovered mistakes in data used by forensic scientists. These errors related to the chances that DNA found at a crime scene matched a particular person in thousands of cases the Washington Post reported.

Problems with DNA Date Back More than 15 Years

The FBI traced these mistakes back to 1999. It concluded these errors were unlikely to lead to dramatic changes that would affect the outcomes of cases. That initial optimism was later undermined.

Jurors were told the chances that a piece of genetic material belonged to anyone other than the defendant if there was a DNA match was one in more than a billion. In fact, the odds were more like one in 100 in many cases. It’s a significant difference.

In Travis County, prosecutors joined a major statewide effort to re-evaluate cases affected by the miscalculations. However, the Austin Police Department’s crime lab fell behind. It faces recalculating statistics on about half of almost 1,300 Travis County cases. The lab was validating new software and updating its protocols when it was hit by the shutdown, the Statesman reported.

The lab’s backlog of cases awaiting analysis increased by about 1,300, the highest in the past five years.

The Austin crime lab has been dogged by problems over the last few years. In 2015, Austin police announced that they would be revisiting 123 crime victims after a technician failed to properly record evidence from the crime scenes, KXAN reported.

At Peek & Toland , many of our success stories have involved evidence being exposed as suspect or bogus.

The recent issues in evidence gathering have made it clear that you may not be guilty just because DNA evidence points to it. Our expert Austin criminal attorneys can make sure that no stone is unturned in highlighting the deficiencies in the prosecution case. Call us for a consultation at (512) 474-4445.

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Backlog of Rape Kit Testing in Austin and Elsewhere Impedes Justice

By Peek & Toland on June 23, 2016

In 2011, Texas became only the second state in the nation to pass legislation that required law enforcement agencies to count and test the backlog of untested rape kits in their storage facilities. Five years on, the backlog remains substantial creating concerns it could impede the administration of justice.

This month, the Washington Times reported on concerns raised by the backlog in DNA testing at labs across Texas.

While inroads have been made in the testing of rape kits, problems that the FBI identified last year in DNA testing have led to a re-evaluation of many cases.

Rape kit backlog is impeding justice

Crime labs across the country were told by the FBI that they are using outdated methods that were overstating the accuracy of DNA tests. For years, prosecutors have lauded DNA as an infallible test. However, labs were examining samples containing genetic material from a number of people and overstating the reliability of the tests, the Washington Times reported.

While prosecutors in Travis County are part of that massive national effort to re-evaluate cases, Austin Police Department’s crime lab, is still in the laborious process of testing new software and updating protocols. It will have to perform new calculations on about half of the 1,297 cases identified to date in Travis County, the Washington Times reported.

Meanwhile, in Houston, the expansion of testing for property crimes has served to fuel a backlog of 4,600 DNA cases, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The backlog has impacted the Harris County crime lab’s ability to promptly process evidence for sexual assaults and even homicides, the Chronicle reported.

The lab serves more than 60 law enforcement agencies. The county has a 60 day goal for the processing of sexual assault cases, but processing is taking as long as 172 days to complete, the report stated.

Clete Snell, a criminal justice professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, said the delays were undermining public confidence, postponing trials and meaning wrongly convicted defendants are languishing in jail longer as they wait for the results of the DNA tests that would clear them.

A report in the Amarillo Globe News in March said the city’s police department still has more than 800 untested rape kits that date back to the 1990s.  Police say complying with the 2011 law is draining resources.

As of early 2013, Texas had about 15,900 untested rape kits.

DNA evidence is crucial, particularly when gathering evidence for sexual offenses or family violence, where false allegations are frequently made.  The recent problems with DNA testing and the backlog in testing has undermined confidence in the criminal justice system in Texas and has surely condemned more innocent people to additional time behind bars.

If you have been charged with rape or another sexual offense or any violent offense, you could lose your good name and face a heavy custodial sentence. It’s imperative to hire a knowledgeable and experienced criminal attorney to defend you. Please contact our office at (512) 474-4445.

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