Police Department faces allegations of misread evidence

Sarah White

Allegations of improper analysis of evidence have been made against the Austin Police Department crime laboratory by Debra Stephens, a former forensic scientist and employee of APD. The Texas Department of Public Safety is currently investigating these allegations.

In 2005, the Texas Legislature approved a law requiring crime laboratories analyzing evidence for court to be inspected for accreditation. In a Dec. 27 letter to Travis County district attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, Stephens wrote that the inspection and accreditation first conducted on the APD lab were invalid due to unqualified lab employees and mishandling of evidence. The letter was not released to the media until January.

Buddy Meyer, Travis County assistant district attorney, said representatives of the Texas Department of Public Safety are still investigating the allegations and have not yet reported a final conclusion to the DA’s office. He also said Lehmberg has released reports detailing the complaint to defense attorneys in Austin, whose cases might be affected by the allegations.
“From [2005] forward, the accredited laboratory was managed by non-scientists and unqualified personnel,” Stephens wrote.

She attached, along with her letter to Lehmberg, evidence in the form of three exhibits which she claimed indicated the crime lab had rushed to report results before sufficient analysis was conducted.

“I would estimate that there are hundreds of other cases that were analyzed without regard to laboratory protocols in ‘rush’ case requests that I was unable to identify,” Stephens wrote. “Part of my decision in releasing these documents to your office came from my belief that this information could be uncovered by the defense community and brought into the courtroom to discredit these individuals and the whole Austin Police Department crime laboratory.”

Pat Johnson, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, wrote in a letter to the district attorney’s office that there could have been insufficient testing before the APD crime laboratory issued a preliminary report.

“From my review of these cases, appropriate chemical analysis was preformed prior to issuance of the final laboratory report,” Johnson wrote. “The documents provided on two of the cases, however, do not show any testing before the ‘Preliminary Report’ was emailed. I suspect there may be more records … and those should be reviewed before deciding whether this is a problem.”

Johnson also wrote that he recommends the APD crime laboratory not refer to “preliminary reports” as reports, but as “preliminary findings” to help distinguish them from authentic lab reports.

Bill Gibbens, spokesman for the Forensics Science Division of the Austin Police Department, said Stephens allegations were unrelated to a previous complaint made by another APD employee, Cecily Hamilton, about faulty work in the crime lab in 2010.

“Ms. Hamilton’s complaint had to do with a DNA related issue and Ms. Stephen’s allegations are a chemistry related issue,” Gibbens said.

Printed on Thursday, January 26, 2011 as: APD Lab faces allegations of poor analysis