Thursday, January 12, 2012

Former Austin crime lab scientist says reports issued without testing

A fired scientist at the Austin PD crime lab is making serious, public allegations, including that the lab issued reports in drug cases without performing any lab testing. Reported the Austin Statesman ("Fired scientist files complaint against Austin police crime lab," Jan. 12):
A fired former Austin Police Department crime lab scientist has filed a complaint against the lab with the Travis County district attorney's office, alleging lab administrators do not have proper accreditation and that drug evidence was not analyzed before reports were submitted.

The complaint, filed in December, has prompted District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to ask the Texas Department of Public Safety to review the charges.
APD says the complainant, a scientist named Debra Stephens, is a disgruntled ex-employee seeking to bring discredit on the agency. Stephens, for her part, says she was fired last year in retaliation for raising these problems. "Stephens said Wednesday evening that she raised concerns about the lab last January or February with department officials and was then fired in April. She said she was fired because of her allegations." Issuing reports without having done testing was definitely the most serious allegation:
Stephens wrote in her letter to [Travis County DA Rosemary] Lehmberg that "results are being reported and charges are being filed without any analysis being conducted at all."

[Defense attorney Dan] Dworin said if that proves to be true, "that's a God-awful scandal."

Stephens also estimated that hundreds of other drug cases analyzed by the Police Department's crime lab since 2005 were "analyzed without regard to laboratory protocols."

These, she wrote, came in "rush" cases.

Defense lawyers interviewed suggested that the "rush" cases were required to meet prosecutors' accelerated prosecution schedule under the so-called Rocket Docket. Under that program — which initially was implemented for low-level drug cases to clear space in the crowded Travis County Jail — prosecutors present to defendants a summary of the evidence in the case, including the drug testing report, along with a plea bargain offer within about two weeks of an arrest.

Defense lawyer Amber Vazquez Bode said that following protocol is essential in such cases because it ensures accuracy.

"It's a pretty big deal if in fact a substance was not crack cocaine and you are sitting in state jail for a year," she said.

Dworin and Vazquez Bode said it's too early to predict whether the outcomes of any prosecutions or the course of any pending cases will be affected by Stephens' letter.
The Department of Public Safety said in a letter to the DA's office that they could reach no conclusion about reports being issued without testing because of a lack of record keeping, though they note that "The Austin Police Department lab policy does not specify when the review must be performed, nor did any case records indicate review dates. Therefore, no judgments on this allegation can be made." Further, "The documents provided on two of the cases ... do not show any testing before the 'Preliminary Report' was emailed.," though DPS recommended further investigation before concluding that was a problem. But it's fair to say the official DPS review so far has not debunked Ms. Stephens' most explosive claims and in fact slightly bolstered them.

Notably, tomorrow the Forensic Science Commission will be discussing a somewhat similar episode from the El Paso crime lab, where an incompetent labworker apparently signed off on test results without performing the appropriate procedures, or in some cases interpreting the results incorrectly; they were put on probation by the national accrediting body but recently taken off that status. From the media accounts, the Austin episode, if the allegations are true (a big if, at this early stage), the malpractices described seem to stem more from bureaucratic malaise than any one person's specific incompetence, but the result is the same: Test results are issued by the lab without any justifiable, scientific basis.

These allegations come on the heels of reports last fall of high error rates in DWI blood testing at the Austin PD crime lab, which is a growing concern in light of so-called "no refusal" policies and the tendency of Austin police to arrest people for DWI when the charges are unsustainable.

Earlier, in 2010 an Austin crime lab worker alleged that quality assurance personnel at the lab were underqualified and that staff were threatened with retaliation if they reported problems in the lab. Though an investigation said claims were unfounded, at the time Cecily Hamilton, a former crime-lab scientist in the DNA division, said in a public statement that "APD is covering up the fact that their DNA lab has issues and that they performed a bogus internal investigation and they are trying to discredit and slander me so that people will not listen when I tell the truth about what occurred during my employment there."

Similarly, the DA and police department are circling the wagons and seeking to discredit Ms. Stephens in the media, but that's a short-sighted approach. If she turns out to be right, and the DPS letter doesn't contradict that possibility - they're setting themselves up for bigger future problems. And if she's wrong, a more thorough investigation should reveal it; there's no call for a rush to judgment. Generally, discrediting one's critics works better if you're able to show someone is a liar; just saying it over and over can only fend them off for so long. So far, Ms. Stephens' central allegation of misconduct has not been disproven, at least by DPS' investigation.

When the Forensic Science Commission dismissed an earlier, more generic complaint against the Austin crime lab last year, to my knowledge it did not include these hot-button allegations of fraudulently issuing reports without having done testing, so Grits won't be surprised if the FSC decides take up this issue, nor if the Austin allegations are mentioned tomorrow in the context of the Commission's discussion tomorrow of the El Paso crime lab.

Maybe the Forensic Science Commission needs to take up Ms. Stephens' allegations. The situation needs to be investigated by somebody who doesn't begin already knowing the conclusions they want to reach, either for or against the crime lab, and then cherrypick evidence to support it. And from their defensive public comments I don't trust APD nor the Travis County DA - who's currently in the midst of a hotly contested primary battle - to perform that function without shifting into CYA mode.

RELATED: For anyone interested in more detail, Grits has uploaded Stephens' letter to the DA onto Google documents, as well as DPS' letter to the DA's office. Thanks to a reader for passing them along.


Anonymous said...

And how, exactly, do you believe this is any different from the BAT van controversy going on right now in Harris County? I haven't noticed you calling for the Forensic Science Commission to investigate that matter.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The FSC is specifically forbidden from investigating breathalyzer technology in their governing statute, or I would be suggesting precisely that, for the same reasons.

gravyrug said...

Even if Stephens's claims can't be proven, what DPS has already found should call for significant changes in how the crime lab does business. Not required to show dates of testing? That alone is a major red flag.

Anonymous said...

"...About the time she was fired, Stephens made other complaints about the lab to its national accrediting agency and the Texas Forensic Science Commission, Mannix said..."

So the FSC knew, but decided not to report on it, not to take action? No info to the public...until now?


Anonymous said...

"...I suspect that there may be more records in these two case folders and those should be reviewed before deciding whether this is a problem..."

Holy Crap! Did Pat Johnson actually put this statement into print?

For those of you not in the biz, this is code for "Hey guys, make sure that you create CYA documents and stuff them into the case folders so they can be 'discovered' during your review."

RSO wife said...

I don't understand why this is such a surprise. Corruption in government agencies has been there for an extremely long time. The only difference is that now it's getting a lot more blatant and whistle blowers are fired for bringing up things that others want swept under the rug.

I say hooray for Debra Stephens for standing up for what she thought was the right thing to do. And since she was fired shortly afterward, there must be some truth to her allegations.

If there were more people like her, lots of underhanded, corrupt things wouldn't get swept under the rug. Too many people these days are so afraid of losing their job that they close their eyes to illegal, immoral and just plain wrong things going on where they work.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm more skeptical than most. When I read the letter she sent to the DA's office it struck me as peculiar. If her intent was to communicate that dry-labbing was being practiced (reporting of tests not performed), then it is odd that it is mentioned in passing, hidden away in the body of the letter. Dry-labbing is a bfd. It is absolutely the worst, most egregious misconduct that you could accuse someone of. Moreover, dry-labbing would be falsification of a government record, which is a state felony when it relates to crime lab records. So it is a bfd. Yet, when you read the letter, her major concern is with the qualification of the lab's management. And then she was fired in April, and waits until December to notify the DA's office of improprieties that would constitute criminal behavior. Who does that???

Personally, I'm not convinced at this point.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:58-

The FSC only investigates allegations submitted by the Innocence Project or the lab directors themselves. It doesn't investigate allegations submitted from the analysts because a well-trained analyst knows how to keep his/her mouth shut.

Case in point, who were the analysts that wrote the lab reports for the cases mentioned in D. Pat Johnson's letter? Why didn't they speak up about the alleged "dry-labbing"?

Anon 7:23-

Each level of the hierarchy above the analyst will drag their feet towards addressing these types of issues, hoping that the issues will be forgotten (That is, once the analyst has been terminated from their position and no longer has access to those pesky confirming tell-all documents hidden in the case folders). We've only seen two documents so far. Who else did she alert to her concerns before January 2012? It sounds like the Forensic Science Commission already knew (the John Bradley legacy of concealing information continues...).

Anyone want to send a request for Open Records to APD?

Anonymous said...

7:54 - We are assuming here that the allegation of dry-labbing is true. Maybe it is not true.

Given the timing and content of the letter, I think some degree of skepticism is warranted.

If you are going to request open records, I would include Stephen's personel file in the request.

Anonymous said...

While I do applaud Stephens for attempting to bring to light in Texas the plague of corruption in the Medical Examiners' offices, I would be surprised if Stephens's claim goes anywhere seeing as though her request for an investigation will be reviewed by Vincent DiMaio. Highly questionable and even suspicious rulings of DiMaio as Chief Medical Examiner for Bexar County remain unresolved and yet, he by appointment now serves on the Forensic Science Commission. Talk about a red flag.

Anonymous said...

Dry-labbing? It is frightening that this is such a common practice that people in the field have given it a name. Years ago I thought Ralph Erdman was an anomaly when he wrote autopsy reports without ever doing a Y incision. Apparently there are many people who are willing to send others to prison on false information.

Anonymous said...

Last I checked, lots of uncommon things had names.