Thursday, December 15, 2016

DPS: 2/3 of Austin DNA lab analysts so bad they can't be retrained

The latest reports from the Austin PD DNA lab almost stun the senses, revealing that 2/3 of DNA analysts employed there were allegedly so incompetent that the DPS crime lab folk don't think they're retrainable. Reported the Austin Statesman:
Immediately after the Austin Police Department shuttered parts of its troubled crime lab, police officials asked experts from the Texas Department of Public Safety to help retrain APD staffers with a goal of possibly getting the lab up and running again. 
But Monday, DPS officials told the department they had lost faith in most of the staffers they were working with — and wouldn’t be returning. 
Instead, according to a one-page letter obtained by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, only a select two from a staff of six DNA analysts are invited to a state facility to continue training in a “supportive environment.” 
“I know they feel there have been some challenges, and they aren’t confident in the work of some of our analysts that we have had in retraining,” interim Police Chief Brian Manley said. “Since they have been doing this for us, we want to respect their decision and respect their request.” 
Manley said Monday was the first time he had personally been notified of the gravity of the situation. 
“They have been in contact with some of our supervisors, but to be made aware of this level of concern, where they don’t want to move forward with four of our scientists, that is a new development,” he said.
Art Acevedo left town at an opportune time, one notices in passing. But it's worth mentioning that this failure in part stems from the now-Houston PD chief's relative inattention to and de-prioritization of most of his department's duties besides patrol, which he perennially proposed expanding to the detriment of all other aspects of the department's duties. In Houston, because of past scandals, the crime lab has already been taken away from the police department's purview, so at his new gig Chief Acevedo thankfully will be relieved of that responsibility. But the team he left behind in Austin must immediately shift its focus to all the non-patrol duties which have been neglected for so many years. That of necessity starts with the crime lab, and particularly the DNA division, but if it ends there, more such land mines will explode in the future. All the department's civilian support functions - from crime-scene techs to victim-support specialists - have for years been relegated to the back of the budget line.

In the meantime, the Austin City Council should seriously consider spinning off its crime lab the way Houston did, in compliance with recommendations from the National Academies of Sciences dating back to 2009 that crime labs should be independent and not controlled by police. That's in part because analysts can become agents of the police instead of independent scientific arbiters when they're embedded in a police department's organizational culture. But it's also because police departments seldom prioritize crime labs, not just in terms of management attention but also budgeting, leaving them under-resourced and often devoid of high-level scientific expertise. That's a big part of what happened at APD's DNA lab.

Grits should add, when I say "independent," that does NOT mean hand it off to the Travis County medical examiner, which has its own long history of tolerating questionable forensics and a too-cozy relationship with law enforcement that influences scientific judgments. Houston's crime lab with an independent board is the model to replicate.

Finally, the Austin DNA lab imbroglio arguably represents the nadir of Forensic Science Commission effectiveness, though this year they've worked doubletime playing catchup. Grits has praised the FSC when they do good work, but a bunch of these issues were raised in 2010 by Cecily Hamilton about the Austin lab and the FSC investigation gave them a pass. Recent events corroborate Hamilton's charges and seriously call into question whether the FSC adequately investigated them. 

The issues Austin faces surrounding DNA mixtures are similarly being confronted at crime labs around the state. But Grits surely hopes the level of incompetence apparently at play in the Austin lab is mostly exceeded elsewhere. DNA is used in SO many cases these days - with half or more cases involving the more complicated mixture analysis that's been called into question in the last 18 months - that the legal task of undoing the damage nearly boggles the mind. 

Now consider this: The 2009 NAS report considered DNA evidence the gold standard of forensics and focused more on the non-scientific nature of nearly all other types of forensic evidence, from fingerprint analysis to hair-and-fiber to ballistics to bite marks. DNA mixture evidence may be a mess, but so are many other types forensic evidence used every day in Texas and American courts.  You can put a person in a lab coat but that doesn't make what comes out of their mouth science.

The nation since the election been grappling with the rise of "fake news." But fake science, pseudoscience, whatever you want  to call it, has been embedded in American courts for decades, harming more people, certainly, than any climate-change denier has to date. 

It makes you wonder: How in heaven's name can this much error with such grave consequences have been tolerated and justified by the justice system for so long? We need forensic analysis and Grits continues to think some forensic disciplines are useful. But being useful doesn't make them science, which is a pretension designed to exaggerate the credibility of analysts and overstate the certainty with which jurors and other stakeholders interpret state testimony about physical evidence.

MORE: The Statesman reports that Austin is no longer even trying to reopen its DNA lab.


Unknown said...

Re: "You can put a person in a lab coat, but that doesn't make what comes out of their mouth science."

Anonymous said...

Keep in mind that Houston's latest version of a crime lab still routinely screws up so while it looks good on paper, the results are just as bad as they ever were. That won't change if every classified officer is kicked out of the building and all direct ties between CSI's and police are severed either. While the top of the food chain is among the best paid in the country, the grunts that do the work are among the worst and upcoming pension cuts will further contribute to turnover issues and quality of staff.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Agreed, 10:26, not perfect. But I trust the board presiding over the crime lab in Houston more than I did the various chiefs who were over it in the past. Plus, it creates an independent voice in the city budget process. They don't get sidelined on behalf of the chief's focus on patrol, etc.. But you're right. Independence is at most only part of the solution. I mainly mentioned it bc, while I support independence, I vociferously oppose moving the lab to the medical examiner's office, as some at the city have floated.

Anonymous said...


"While the top of the food chain is among the best paid in the country, the grunts that do the work are among the worst..."

The "grunts", 10:26, are either improperly trained by the "top of the food chain",
or the "grunts" are following the unethical examples set by the "top of the food chain". The quality of the staff is reflective of the leadership.
The "grunts" are just doing what they are told in order to get a paycheck - keeping their mouths shut.

The latest TFSC APD Report stated "analysts themselves were aware the [DNA protocols] was ineffective because they observed...[problems] in their own casework and did nothing."

Perhaps the "top of the food chain" is the part that is not invited back to the DNA lab. The "grunts" can most certainly be scientifically re-trained.

Anonymous said...

Those auditors that participated in the 17 audits (that didn't find the problems themselves) should be removed from the forensics community. They obviously don't know what they are doing or are ill-trained for their responsibilities.

These people include:
Rodney Andrus, ASCLD/LAB Staff Inspector (2010 Report of APD Crime Lab)
Mike Hurley, ASCLD/LAB Staff Inspector (2010 Report)
Michael Creasy, ASCLD/LAB Quality Manager (2010 Report)
Ralph Keaton, ASCLD/LAB Executive Director

Interestingly, the 2010 ASCLD/LAB Audit Report stated "...the [APD] laboratory submitted an annual accreditation audit report for each of the five years since the previous accreditation inspection. However, the report were not completely accurate as the reports were scored "No" for the section which asks "Did the inconsistency or error on a proficiency test or casework occur that required corrective action to be implemented?" A review of proficiency test records revealed nonconformities in proficiency tests that did initiate corrective actions but were not reported in the annual reports..."

(There were a large number of other deficiencies reported pertaining to Latent Prints, Crime Scene Section, other proficiency testing problems, electronic document storage and amendments, etc.)

[Yet, the FSC failed to see these proficiency testing errors as a red flag for their "review".]

Anonymous said...

Those that fabricated false government documents for their 2010 investigations (of which the FSC relied upon for their so-called "review") should be criminally liable, including:
Blake Goertz (Texas Rangers, Regional DPS Section Supervisor for DNA (Waco)
Cathy McCord (Texas Rangers, Regional DPS Section Supervisor for DNA (Lubbock)
Ed Harris (APD Chief of Field Support Services)
Bill Gibbins (APD Forensic Service Manager)
Tony Arnold (APD Quality Assurance Manager)
Art Acevedo (ex-APD Police Chief)

@ Cecily Hamilton (ex-APD analyst who made the allegations in 2010)-
You now have a very strong claim for a civil case against these people for libel, slander, and defamation. Go for it.

Anonymous said...

Grits - do you happen to have the 1-page letter?

Anonymous said...

Pasadena PD still have a lab?

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:16, no as Pasadena went with the County lab to save something like $5 million a year.

Anon 10:26, the "top of the food chain" who get paid so much are all well educated and leaders in the field. What the others forget is that the top of an organization neither trains nor audits the worker bees directly, they just set the protocols and steer the ship. From what I gather, the breakdowns that keep taking place in Houston are the fault of employees in the middle of the organization that are supposed to make sure the operations of the lab are in order. Given your narrative and that of others working for the city, it is likely that only the top is well paid, leading to the other levels dropping the ball. It's still a step in the right direction, albeit a very expensive step, but you are correct that until the lower levels are more selectively hired and paid they will continue to fail.

Regarding the commentator trying to push a libel/slander civil action, unless Texas has changed the statute of limitations from one year, I don't know how successful it would be. Most of those people listed would have ample levels of plausible deniability given the layers upon layers of people between them and Ms. Hamilton but even then, the standard is set so high that I doubt such action would be worth it.
"In Texas, a private figure plaintiff bringing a defamation lawsuit must prove that the defendant was at least negligent with respect to the truth or falsity of the allegedly defamatory statement. Public officials, all-purpose public figures, and limited-purpose public figures must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice, i.e., knowing that the statement was false or recklessly disregarding its falsity."

BarkGrowlBite said...

Acevedo was also known for frequent ride-alongs with his patrol officers. There’s nothing wrong with that … it probably helped strengthen ties between Austin PD and the community. But you can’t do that at the expense of other police divisions. It looks as though Houston hired a frustrated patrolman as chief of police.

As for that non-scientific forensic evidence, fingerprints, hair and fibers, ballistic evidence, and bite marks have in many investigations proven to be accurate rather than questionable. Unfortunately, it is however true that some 'analysts' have testified in court to results they knew were questionable, if not downright incorrect, and that includes analysts from the FBI lab.

Slamming all fingerprint, hair and fiber, ballistic and bite mark evidence is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@4:06, I do not have the letter.

@BGB, that's why I said "We need forensic analysis and Grits continues to think some forensic disciplines are useful." Of those you named, I'm for throwing out bite marks and hair analysis nearly entirely (limited usefulness still on hair in certain contexts, mainly excluding suspects). Ballistic and fingerprint are more reliable, but not "scientific."

I'm not for throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but I also think the only way to deal with forensic errors is to forthrightly confront them with as little defensiveness and as open a mind as possible. Full-blown garbage forensics like bite marks have to go. The ones that remain thereafter must stop overstating how probative their results are.

Anonymous said...

GFB asks, "How in heaven's name can this much error with such grave consequences have been tolerated and justified by the justice system for so long?"

I can suggest two primary reasons:

1. With only a few notable exceptions, forensic sciences are imbedded in law enforcement agencies. The culture of law enforcement is not compatible with the culture of science. Under the best of circumstances, there will inevitably be conflicts between the answers that science can legitimately give, and answers that the law enforcement culture wants and needs. When senior managers come entirely from the dominant law enforcement culture, the culture of science will inevitably be under-valued and degraded. You can see this happening in the APD mess, with the hiring of Scott Milne as the chief forensic officer to fix the lab's problems. You would think that APD would want to hire a top-rate, well-credentialed PhD-level scientist for this job. But what they actually hired (kxan has posted his resume) was someone with a weak science background (bachelors degree only), and a strong employment background in police-based forensic science. So in this most critical hiring decision, the dominant law enforcement culture won out at the expense of strong science.

2. The legal system creates dis-incentives to retesting of evidence by the defense. In a perfect world, the defense would be encouraged to obtain retesting and case file review, which would serve as a double-check that the work of the prosecution laboratory was correctly performed and that the conclusions were supported by the observations. But this is almost never done. In some disciplines (for instance, firearms and toolmarks), defense retesting is virtually unheard of. An analyst will approach his/her work differently if there is a strong expectation that the work will be re-examined down the road by another competent examiner. This expectation does not exist for most forensic science disciplines. All of the problems with APD's DNA program would have been easily identified during defense review, which means that defense reviews are not happening in Travis County.

It is possible to incentivize high-quality, unbiased laboratory testing that provides reliable scientific information to the justice system. Austin does not have this because policy makers in Austin and Travis County have not made it a priority until now.

Anonymous said...

For those DNA analysts that were "uninvited" to return to APD, Forensic Science Commissioner Dr. Arthur Eisenberg is hiring at his lab.

Given that Eisenberg's eschewing of responsibilities as an FSC member in 2010 contributed towards the loss of your job, he should be obligated to re-train and pay you using grant funding that he got from the State/Feds.

Anonymous said...

"top of the food chain" who get paid so much are all well educated and leaders in the field..."

...such as the members of the FSC? Attorneys, doctors, and PhDs who are required by CCP 38.01 to investigate, but didn't. They just cost the taxpayers $14 million.

"the top of an organization neither trains nor audits the worker bees directly, they just set the protocols and steer the ship..."

What if those protocols are wrong, scientifically and/or legally?
Who wrote the protocols for the APD DNA lab?
Who told the lab analysts that using expired reagents to analyze evidence was a scientifically acceptable action?
When is the last time that the person who "set the protocols and steers the ship" provided testimony as to their flawed lab protocols that that lab analysts were required to follow?

Anonymous said...

Something tells me that the 17 different auditors should be audited. Have they been trained properly on how to audit? How many problems have they overlooked in other labs?

The Forensic Science Commission should be audited as well. How many complaints have they disregarded as irrelevant? When was the last time they spoke in front of the Committee of Publc Safety? I want to hear Hinojosa yell at them!

Anonymous said...

The Texas Tribune lists the following DNA analysts from the Austin Police Department Crime Lab (Data last updated on 4/13/2015).

Diana Garcia Morales - Forensic Scientist Sr - DNA in Police, a department of Austin - Hire date 11/14/2005
Elizabeth Louise Morris - Forensic Scientist Sr - DNA in Police, a department of Austin - Hire date 11/14/2005
Claire Helen McKenna - Forensic Scientist-DNA in Police, a department of Austin - Hire date 10/29/2006
Alejandra Gil - Forensic Scientist-DNA in Police, a department of Austin - Hire date 1/13/2014
Jeffrey Scott Sailus - Supv, Forensic - DNA in Police, a department of Austin - Hire date 6/16/2014
Adriana Perez Washington - Forensic Scientist-DNA in Police, a department of Austin - Hire date 6/2/2014
Kimberly Beth Clement - Forensic Scientist-DNA in Police, a department of Austin - Hire date 2/23/2015

And it looks like 4 out of 7 were hired in 2014-2015. These unfortunate souls inherited the mess created by their superiors and are now out of a job since the lab is shut down indefinitely. Happy Holidays to you, courtesy of ASCLD/LAB!

Of course, there's this joker who has been around for 20 years, no doubt covering-up all kinds of scientific problems.
Billy C. Gibbens - Mgr, Forensics Svcs in Police, a department of Austin - Hire date 9/12/1996, annual salary $107,162 (and worthless every penny!)

Is he still employed?

Anonymous said...

@11:40 -
The APD situation is clearly a disaster from an organizational perspective. But because it is an organizational failure, picking good guys to praise and bad guys to blame is pretty risky when looking in from the outside, which you clearly are. You don't know who in the organization was making what decisions, or what constraints and limitations were placed on them by the organization.

So, from simply a simple decency perspective, you might want to restrain from casting aspersions on individuals by name when you don't have the inside knowledge to do that accurately.

Also, you might want to double check your facts. Jeff Sailus is dead.

Anonymous said...

@6:36- Awww, Buttecup. You must be a millennial.

How dare the Texas Tribune not remove Jeff Sailus from their database. Have they no decency? They should really double-check their facts (insert sarcasm here). (as you might double-check your facts, too, given that the previous post stated "data last updated on 4/13/2015")

And unless you've been living under a rock for the past year, the Austin Statesman has been publishing stories left and right about the leadership incompetence of the lab, naming names. Ex-APD Police Chief Art Acevedo blamed Jeff's passing (and subsequent search for a replacement) as an excuse for the problems. The Forensic Science Commission, too, has published their report giving detailed examples of who did what and when. It's obvious who was making the poor decisions. The data and information is public.

But when the title of the blog post is "2/3 of Austin DNA lab analysts so bad they can't be retrained", I think it's perfectly appropriate to clarify which analysts were "bad" and "untrainable." They weren't "bad" and "untrainable" when they were hired by APD, but now they are??

This list, again, readily available to the public, clearly illustrates that some analysts had nothing to do with the mismanagement, but will suffer career-wise because of it -- unfairly tagged as "bad and untrainable".

Dandelions, such as yourself, are content with blaming the nameless faceless "system" for the issues. Part of the problem with the forensic community and these reoccurring issues is that there is no personal accountability for the faulty actions of a few. As long as no one person is to blame, then we can continue living in blissful ignorance where everybody gets a blue ribbon. As long as there is no penalty for a half-ass job and lying, they can continue to collect a paycheck at the taxpayer's expense.

To boot, my sister's rapist will probably never get prosecuted because of the "system's" backlog of untested rape kits, now complicated by APD's longstanding mismanagement and conversion of the limited-edition forensic analyst into a "bad and untrainable" scientist. There are no Happy Holidays for our family this year.

So, I do have the information, I know the good from the bad, and I can cast aspersions.

For all the victims of unsolved and unprosecuted assaults, your "simple decency" can shove it.

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:36, the way it works is most blame goes to the leader of the organization that pushed, promoted, and otherwise signed off on many changes that led to the problems. Why Acevedo was in such demand is a mystery to many who have watched him in Austin but now he's Houston's problem to deal with. He convinced elected leaders to prioritize funding in such a way that he leaves Austin in shambles, he can take his finger pointing with him as the city recovers from his run.

Note to Houston: in this day and age, appointing a glorified street cop with a BA degree to lead a large organization is a mistake. He'll make all the right talking points and tell people what they want to hear but over time, the closer you look at his decisions, the sooner you'll be looking to replace him. I believe the saying used is "All hat and no cattle."

Anonymous said...

This is just the surface all police dept's. and crime lab's are corrupt and skew evidence in prosecutors favor to keep the money train rolling. It is not about justice it is about financing the corrupt justice system.

Anonymous said...

When HPD's lab was being raked over the coals and held up as the sole example of misconduct, some of us pointed out that everything they were doing wrong was being done at most other crime labs as well. That it was also being done at a higher rate of frequency in those smaller labs, as well as the regional labs, fell on deaf ears because everyone wanted to compartmentalize the problems to a single lab. Since that time, there have been scandals all over the country, including DPS and the FBI as well as other large state labs, the more scrutiny applied, the more often problems arise. The public demands convictions but are not willing to pay for a best possible practices approach to forensic work, at least until they are charged with a crime where the analyst exaggerates the results.

Anonymous said...

APD's Blood alcohol testing for DWI cases also suspicious.

Allegations from a different ex-employee (also fired).