Saturday, April 14, 2012

Forensic commission will investigate Austin PD drylabbing allegations

Yesterday Grits offered up an account of the investigative panel on the El Paso crime lab at the Forensic Science Commission, and I chose that subject in part because Chuck Lindell at the Austin Statesman was there to cover the other big story of the day: The Commission's decision to open an investigation in response to allegations surrounding the Austin crime lab. (There appeared to be no MSM reporters, even from the El Paso Times, at the 7 a.m. investigative panel.) Reported Lindell ("State panel opens inquiry into Austin police crime lab," April 14):
The Texas Forensic Science Commission voted unanimously Friday to open an investigation into two complaints about the Austin Police Department crime lab's testing of drug evidence.

A three-member subcommittee will lead the investigation — holding meetings that will be open to the public — and report its findings to the full commission, which will conclude the case with a written determination.

The state commission, which investigates allegations of negligence or misconduct involving forensic labs, set no deadlines during Friday's meeting in Austin.

One complaint against the Austin police crime lab was filed by another facility, Integrated Forensic Laboratories in Euless, which questioned testing results or procedures used on evidence in three cases in which it followed up on work by the Austin lab. ...

The second complaint was filed by Debra Stephens, a scientist who worked for several years at the Austin crime lab until she was fired last year.
Lindell goes on to give topline accounts of the specific complaints being investigated, but the most interesting to me were allegations of "drylabbing" preliminary reports. The Austin PD crime lab told the Commission that retesting in one case out of the 23 identified by Ms. Stephens found a substance originally reported that was not there on retesting, but said it didn't affect the outcome of the case. The Commission will have to get to the bottom of that dispute. Stephens told Lindell otuside the meeting that the error "led to a charge being dropped." "I'd call that impacting the outcome of the case," she told him, alluding to discussions over the Commission's narrow definitions of negligence and misconduct.

One tidbit Chuck mentions only in passing deserves more explication. It came out in the discussion that, during the period under review, Austin crime lab workers would simply record results on scraps of paper - often sticky notes - then throw the only original documentation away after performing a test, merely entering the results into the computer system. In one instance, documentation provided by Ms. Stephens showed lab tests continued to be run six minutes after a preliminary report was issued to law enforcement. According to DPS, the practice did not meet ASCLD/LAB standards (they cited the specific regs, but I didn't jot them down), and APD said it changed protocols to eliminate the practice of issuing preliminary reports. They now require testing to be completed before reports are issued, though you'd kinda think that should have been obvious in the first place.

Another interesting allegation against APD came from a private crime lab in Tarrant County (the same one whose director is serving half-time overseeing the El Paso lab) involving whether to classify a substance as "marijuana" or as "THC" found in a substance "other than" marijuana, which receives a higher penalty. A rep from the Austin Bexar County crime lab was unhappy this allegation had been brought, declaring emphatically that the FSC wasn't the right place for resolving disputes between lab interpretations. But with so many other allegations bundled up in the same batch, his pleas not to examine the lab's practices on that score fell on deaf ears. It's possible, commissioners said, it could be a legal instead of a scientific dispute, but they couldn't make that judgment without digging into it further.

Obviously, Grits will continue to track this subject as the FSC inquiry moves along.


Anonymous said...

Regarding drugs. To anyone with spare time and the knowledge I thank you in advance.

What in the hell does it mean when Offense is listed as - Possession GP 3 CS-LT 200G ?

Anonymous said...

See Texas HSC 481.104 for substances listed under Penalty Group 3.

The charge you listed is Possession of Controlled Substance Penaly Group 3 less than 200 grams. That's a 3rd degree felony under Texas HSC 481.117.

Anonymous said...

Possession Penalty Group 3 Controlled Substance Less Than 200 grams

dfisher said...

The commission members assigned to review the Austin Police Department (APD) Toxicology Lab complaint are Alpert (appointed by Gov.), Barnard (appointed by Gov.) and Hampton(appointed by Lt. Gov.)

Dr. Jeffery Barnard should not be on this panel as he has an apparent conflict of interest. As late as 2008 & 2009 APD Police Chief Acevedo was contracting with the Dallas CO. Toxicology Lab chaired by Dr. Jeffery Barnard. It was during this time period that questions were being raised about APD Toxicology results.

An additional problem with the Forensic Science Commission is who is appointing its members. According to the new webpage, as was the case in the former webpage, it shows Perry appointing 5 of the 9 members of the commission. The statute calls for the governor to appoint 4 members of the commission.

I started raising this issue over a month ago and yet I can't get the Forensic Science Commission Attorney to return my call, not that I expected any integrity from most of the political appointees.