DNA mixture issues have been at the forefront during the first half of 2016. An update is in order, but first some background. While some in the forensic community have raised this issue for years, it got widespread attention in May 2015, when the FBI notified labs across the country of discrepancies discovered in the interpretation of DNA mixture cases—those in which multiple contributors may be present. Acting quickly thereafter, the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) assembled a panel of experts to review lab procedures to determine if they were meeting scientifically accepted standards, and notified the entire criminal justice community that results in DNA mixture cases might be inaccurate.
TFSC reviewed standard operating procedures from labs across the state. The results were that in some jurisdictions, the procedures were utterly deficient and unreliable. After reviewing the procedures at the Austin Police Department crime lab, for example, TFSC found issues affecting the accuracy of the analyses at every stage of the testing process. There were issues including contamination, improperly calibrated instruments, incorrect interpretations of results, incompetent analysts, and more. The lab’s accreditation has since been withdrawn, the head of the lab fired, and the lab closed indefinitely.
In the wake of these discoveries and others across the state, TFSC and the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) jointly created the Texas DNA Mixture Review Project (“Project”). The Project has received requests from more than 900 persons in 120 counties who have been convicted in cases involving DNA mixture evidence.
The Project is being tasked to review those cases to determine whether improperly calculated DNA mixture evidence may have undermined a conviction. The six attorneys staffing the Project have requested recalculation in at least 50 of the cases after careful review. More than 30 counties have sent out notices on cases affected by their respective district attorney’s offices, while other requests come from public notices and law library postings about this ongoing forensic issue. Some of the larger counties are still sending notices to individuals across the state whose convictions might have been affected by this problem. TIDC continues to award grant funding so that clients with this issue can be screened and identified. In December, there will be a State Bar CLE offered on criminal writs in Austin.
TCDLA has supported the Project and will continue to update our members on this important collaborative effort to help review thousands of cases from all over Texas. While no exonerations have taken place yet, we will not stop until these cases are all given a full and thorough review.
TFSC hosted a DNA mixture training seminar recently in San Antonio. One of TCDLA’s experts on this issue, Pat McCann of Houston, reports that the seminar was a good mix of science and practical issues for lawyers handling cases with DNA mixture evidence. While not directed to DNA mixture cases, the Court of Criminal Appeals hosted a post-conviction seminar that will also help ensure that clients with this issue get adequate appellate review of their cases.
This is an issue that may require years of vigilant work by TCDLA and our members. Together, and with the help of TFSC and TIDC, we will work to identify cases in which innocent people might have been convicted due to unreliable DNA mixture evidence. We will discover those cases in which justice was not served, no matter how long it takes.