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Chris' Blog

The blog of Chris Perri Law, written by Chris Perri and Shannon Perri. Read the latest in exciting cases where justice is served.

Filtering by Category: Sex Crimes

Nearly 5,000 Austin Convictions in Limbo due to DNA Lab Errors, But Relief for the Wrongfully Imprisoned Still a Long Ways Off

Chris Perri

 Photograph by University of Michigan DNA Lab

Photograph by University of Michigan DNA Lab

The Austin American-Statesman has thoroughly covered the fallout from the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab closure, but if you haven’t been following the news closely, it’s difficult to find one article that provides the overall picture of what’s going on with the DNA issues in Travis County. Below, I’ve summarized the recent Austin DNA Lab scandal, along with providing a legal perspective on how these revelations might affect people who were convicted on the basis of false DNA evidence.

Recalculations vs. Retesting

In the summer of 2015, the FBI announced that errors in its database might have caused nationwide laboratory miscalculations of the probability that DNA found in evidentiary mixtures matched particular defendants’ known DNA profiles. Here is a blog post I wrote on the subject.

The important takeaway is that while the FBI’s database error affected cases nationwide, it only applied to DNA mixtures, which is a type of sample that contains two or more people’s DNA. If DNA mixture evidence contributed to a defendant’s conviction, then the defendant can request a recalculation of the probability that the mixture contained the defendant’s known DNA profile. Such recalculations do NOT involve any re-testing, as the lab simply uses the corrected database protocols to recalculate the probability of a match. The FBI database issues do not implicate the reliability of the actual testing conducted by the various forensic laboratories.

While government agencies argued that the recalculations would not materially affect any pending cases, these assurances became less credible when recalculations in a Galveston murder case drastically reduced the probability that the defendant was the perpetrator.

Meanwhile, the DNA retesting issue rocked the Austin Police Department (APD) last summer, and it could affect up to 5000 past convictions. The chaos began when the Texas Forensic Science Commission conducted an audit of APD’s DNA Laboratory last spring, and the Commission discovered a host of unreliable scientific practices pervading the lab. Among the highlights:

1.     Improper Stochastic Threshold: DNA labs must adopt guidelines to determine whether their interpretation of each DNA sample is scientifically reliable. The stochastic threshold is the point at which a scientist can reliably interpret DNA in a manner that’s not muddled by random effects, such as allele dropout. At APD’s lab, the scientists used a quantitative baseline (as opposed to a qualitative one) as its stochastic threshold, despite the fact that no peer-reviewed journal had ever accepted such a quant-based threshold. Without a valid stochastic threshold, the lab cannot be certain whether its testing results were merely a product of randomness, as opposed to sound scientific process. Because an improper protocol was used at the very beginning stages of all DNA testing, any of the final interpretative results are unreliable. Garbage in, garbage out.

2.     Suspect or Victim-Driven Testing: Sound scientific method requires that scientists select an unknown sample’s comparison loci (the particular segment of DNA material that will later be compared to the known DNA profiles) without knowledge of which comparison loci are clearest on the known DNA profiles. However, APD’s “scientists” were essentially cheating, as they used the known DNA profiles of suspects and victims in order to determine which loci to examine in the unknown samples. This practice created a bias towards finding a match.

3.     Unclear Use of Protocol Deviation: Lab technicians occasionally deviated from clear technical guidelines when it suited the particular needs of a case. Part of the problem stems from APD’s scientists not remaining independent from the investigative team, as the scientists often felt pressure from investigators to return favorable results. This collusion is one of the main reasons why I’ve advocated an independent lab, and the Travis County judges agreed in a proclamation last December.

4.     Contamination: In one egregious example of incompetence, the Forensic Science Commission observed carry-over contamination between the DNA on a victim’s vaginal swab and the DNA on a suspect’s penile swab, despite the fact that this suspect was later determined to be unrelated to the offense. It took re-testing by a different laboratory before this suspect was cleared for an offense he did not commit.

After the Commission’s report, there was also a revelation that a freezer housing hundreds of DNA samples broke down last spring for eight days, leaving officials uncertain whether evidentiary samples had been damaged.

Somehow, despite these systemic problems at APD’s DNA lab, it received annual accreditations for over a decade. A Statesman article revealed that the accrediting body "did not test if a lab’s scientific processes were appropriate for analyses." That seems like a pretty huge oversight in the accreditation process.

The Fallout

Since the revelation of these monumental problems at APD’s DNA Lab, it has closed down and the testing on all pending cases has been sent to independent labs. However, the problem remains of what to do about the convictions from 2005-2016 that were based on faulty DNA testing. Estimates on the number of cases that need to be reviewed range from 3,600 to 5,000.

The Travis County Commissioners and City Council have been considering options for implementing a materiality review to determine which cases need to have the DNA evidence retested, with cost estimates for this review ranging from $6 million to $14 million. However, as of today, the bureaucrats haven’t made a decision, and they appear to be leaning towards the least costly option. I’ve argued that at a minimum, this materiality review must be independent from the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, which has a conflict of interest by virtue of securing the convictions that are under review.

The critical point right now is that the essential independent materiality review of the thousands of cases hasn’t yet begun, and there’s no telling how long it will take to create an independent commission to conduct the review. Even then, a materiality review will only identify the cases in which DNA evidence was a material contributor to a conviction, and at that point, DNA re-testing will be ordered. Defendants will then have to wait for the DNA re-testing to be completed before they know whether they’re entitled to a new trial. And if they are entitled to a new trial, the defendants will have to wait even more time while an application for writ of habeas corpus circulates through the trial court and the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Given the lack of agreement in political circles about how best to conduct the review and the time lag to implement any proposed solutions, there’s no relief in sight for defendants waiting on Travis County to solve this mess.

How We Can Help

Chris Perri Law has over a decade of experience in reviewing post-conviction cases. If you or a loved one suffered from a conviction involving DNA evidence that was tested by the Austin Police Department, contact our firm to review the case. If your case was not in Austin but involved DNA mixtures, contact our firm about requesting a re-calculation of the probability that the DNA mixture matched the defendant. We advocate for our clients from the beginning stages of the process (DNA materiality review) through the final litigation of the writ of habeas corpus in order to ensure that wrongfully convicted people are set free. 

The Dirtiest Little Secret of Texas: Our Civil Commitment Law for Sex Offenders Raises Double Jeopardy Concerns

Chris Perri

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Recently, I read this article in the Fort Worth Star Telegram about Texas’ civil commitment law with respect to sex offenders and was left shocked.

While the article mainly concerns a technical change in the law regarding venue for civil commitment trials, hidden towards the end is the unveiling of Texas’ dirty little secret: Since 1998, more than 350 individuals have been civilly committed to a sex-offender treatment facility in Littlefield, Texas, following their completion of lengthy prison sentences. None have been released upon successful completion of the program, and nearly half were sent back to prison for violations of the treatment program’s rules.

For example, a defendant who is convicted of a sex offense might serve 25 years in prison. As his release date approaches, he discovers that the State of Texas wants him to remain incarcerated after the completion of his long sentence. As a result, a new “civil commitment” trial occurs in which the State seeks to prove that he “has a behavioral abnormality that makes him likely to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence.” This seems like a pretty easy burden to prove since the defendant has previously been convicted of a sex offense.

While this procedure might smack of double jeopardy, Tarrant County prosecutor Bill Vassar defends it by arguing: “During his 25 year imprisonment, [the defendant] never had sex offender treatment from a licensed professional. The jury’s verdict ensures that he will get the treatment he needs, and guarantees the citizens of Texas that he will be monitored 24 hours a day.”

This argument exposes two fundamental problems. First, any prosecutor should be ashamed of a criminal justice system that sends a sex offender to a penitentiary that fails to provide any treatment to that individual prior to release. Right there, Mr. Vassar has unwittingly indicted our entire prison system for ineptitude. Second, Mr. Vassar’s argument that the defendant “will get the treatment he needs” from the Littlefield treatment facility is disproved by the evidence that no one has ever been rehabilitated in the program’s 18 years of operation. Leave it to the government to equate success with this zero percent rehabilitation rate.

I sympathize with victims of sex offenses, and I do believe that offenders need to be punished. However, the proper forum for vindicating victims’ rights and punishing offenders is the criminal process. Once an offender has served his/her sentence, our Double Jeopardy Clause forbids further punishment for that offense. In effect, Texas’ civil commitment law allows Texas to circumvent the Constitution by imprisoning a person a second time for the crime. To continually operate such a “treatment” facility for 18 years despite its zero-percent success rate seems to be a brazen misuse of government resources. Moreover, Texans should be offended by the government’s attempt to disguise the civil commitment facility’s true purpose as rehabilitation. This current system serves no one: not the criminal, not the victim, and certainly not the taxpayer. Littlefield is the island where we send the undesirables to never be heard from again.  

Let’s start with some honesty, and then engage in a legitimate debate about whether the Constitution forbids this type of institution as an unconstitutional subsequent punishment.

For more information on this civil commitment trend for sex offenders, check out the Stateman’s recent write-up here.