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hris Perri Law is a criminal defense law firm located in Austin, Texas.

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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 Tag: Austin criminal defense attorney

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. 

Do you really have the right to remain silent?

Chris Perri

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In the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling in Salinas vs. Texas, Chris Perri Law fears that the high court has whittled away the right to remain silent.

In Salinas, the Court ruled that the prosecution can use your pre-arrest silence against you at trial, thus watering down the essence of the Fifth Amendment’s protections against self-incrimination. In Salinas’ case, prior to being arrested, he voluntarily provided the police with information regarding a murder. However, when authorities asked if Salinas’ gun would match the murder weapon, Salinas refused to answer, under the assumption that he was exercising his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. However, at his trial, the prosecution used his choice to remain silent as damning evidence of his guilt.

The Supreme Court reviewed this ruling, and although it was a close call, the Court ruled that the conviction should be upheld, stating that if individuals want to invoke the Fifth Amendment’s protection, they “must claim it”.  Although the Fifth Amendment clearly states that no one can be forced to be a witness against him or herself in a criminal matter, the Court’s ruling means that the prosecution is free to use the defendant’s pre-arrest silence as evidence of guilt.

Chris Perri Law fears that in light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination has been vastly diluted.  Basically, to claim the rights of this fundamental law, individuals must explicitly inform the authorities that they are invoking their Fifth Amendment right to silence upon being questioned by law enforcement. Chris Perri worries that this requirement especially hurts less educated individuals, who may not be aware of this new ruling. “It creates a further class divide in our system,” Chris Perri says.

In order to maintain your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Chris Perri Law advises you to explicitly state that you’re invoking your Fifth Amendment right when the situation calls for it.  Otherwise, your silence could come back to bite you.

Lowering the Legal Alcohol Limit for Drivers Would Backfire

Chris Perri

Recently, The National Transportation Safety Board released an official recommendation for all states to lower the legal alcohol driving limit to a .05 blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Currently, the blood alcohol legal level is .08. See the chart below to see how these limits actually translate to individuals’ alcohol consumption.

bac-chart.jpg

At Chris Perri Law, we believe that lowering the legal limit would be a mistake and lead to injustice. “I think it dilutes the standard for intoxication,” Chris Perri says. “There is about a .02 margin of error on these breath tests. People that aren’t drunk and even had only one beer could register over the legal limit.” According to Chris, this would cause even more people to refuse to cooperate with police officers, as it puts those who have just had one drink at risk of severe legal consequences. In fact, Chris believes that raising the legal limit would actually lead to safer roads, as then the crime would be more stigmatized by our community. At present, Chris feels it is too easy for anyone to get a DWI, and if the limit was lower, it would seen as even less of a big deal to have been convicted of a DWI. To Chris, it is just not okay for someone who registered at a .08 BAC to be facing the same charge as some registered at, say, a .14.  Currently those arrested with a very high BAC actually benefit from the fact that they are lumped together with those just barely over the limit—the community sees all these crimes as one.

Another concern is that the police are under pressure to arrest anyone who has possibly had one drink for their own liability reasons. If they let someone go and that person has an accident, the city could be sued. However, this leads to innocent, law-abiding citizens spending nights in jail, carrying criminal records, and causing additional tax money to be spent on the criminal justice system. Further, if the BAC limit was say, .12, then when someone is arrested at this BAC, there would be no question that the person was drunk and needs a steep punishment. Currently, having a DWI is not a major stigma because the population understands that even those who aren’t drunk can end up with an arrest.

The National Transportation Safety Board states that more than 100 countries around the world have adopted a .05 BAC legal limit, and that this had led to fewer alcohol-related accidents. However, what is unfair about this comparison is that in these other countries, readily-accessible alternative transportation options exist. Chris Perri believes that in cities in like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City there is absolutely no reason to ever drive after drinking alcohol. Yet, in Austin, we lack a viable public transportation system. A much better way to spend our tax dollars would be on developing better transportation options – not prosecuting individuals with a .05 BAC.

A forgotten element in this debate is how lowering the legal BAC would adversely affect the indigent population. Those with a lower socio-economic status are less likely to have funds for a taxi service. Also, if arrested this population often does not have ability to pay for a private attorney, so they must rely on a court-appointed attorney, which can be a bit of a crapshoot. Let’s not forget, court-appointed services are also paid with our taxes. Furthermore, giving more people criminal records, especially those already facing hardship, does not help anyone, but instead harms our entire community. Having a criminal record makes getting a job harder and also increases one’s likelihood of repeating the crime, as one’s sense of identity begins to shift due to the community’s label of that person as a “criminal.”

At Chris Perri Law, we believe strongly in finding ways to reduce accidents related to drunk-driving. However, Chris feels that by making a DWI more stigmatized and also offering improved public transportation options are much better ways to focus our efforts than punishing those for driving after just one drink.

We’d love to hear what you think, too. Let us know in the comment section.