contact us

Call us at 512-917-4378.

If you prefer, email chris@chrisperrilaw.com or use the contact form to the right. Consultations are free with no obligation. We look forward to providing you with the hard-working legal service you deserve.

1504 West Ave
Austin, TX 78701

512-917-4378

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

rs_Blog.jpg

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: Travis County

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. 

Chris Perri Defends The Travis County Personal Bond System

Chris Perri

bail bonds.jpg

Investigative reporter Tony Plohetski has recently put the Travis County personal bond system under harsh spotlight with claims that the system is too lenient and endangering Austin’s community. Plohetski’s articles have resulted in an uproar from criminal defense attorneys who believe that Plohetski is not seeing the full picture and misrepresenting the Travis County system.

To fully understand the debate, allow me to provide some basic background information on bonds. Firstly, when individuals are arrested and put in jail, a bond amount is set for their release. If these individuals don’t adhere to the agreements of the bond or fail to show up for their court dates, then the courts will sue them for the full bond amount as well as put them back in jail, taking away bond privileges. Rarely do people get second chances at bond.

There are two major types of bonds: personal and cash. Personal bonds mean that once arrested, you can be released for no cost but a hefty promise.  Of course, you would still have a bond amount set. Let’s say the bond is set at $20,000. You can get out for no cost while your court case is proceeding, but if you fail to show up to court or adhere to the agreed upon conditions, than you will be responsible for paying $20,000.

Cash bonds differ in that you have to actually put up the full bond amount with the understanding that you will get it back as long as you stick to the rules, etc. You can either do this with your own cash, or hire a bondsman who will put the money up but charge you a nonrefundable 10-20% fee (also known as a “surety bond”).  This fee only benefits bondsmen and in no way goes back to the court system. It means that the arrested individuals already have to pay big bucks when they haven’t yet been proven guilty. Remember, we are supposed to live in a country built on the decree: innocent until proven guilty.

The Travis County bond system is known for granting more personal bonds than any other county in Texas. Reporter Plohetski believes that this endangers Austin by allowing more defendants to be out of jail, thus making them more likely to commit crimes or fail to make court appearances. Plohetski feels our current system is too lenient, and he advocates for more involvement by the District Attorney’s office in the personal bond decision process. He feels that individuals either need to wait it out in jail or cough up cash for a surety bond.

However, Chris Perri disagrees, along with most other fellow criminal defense attorneys (click here for opinion of attorney Bradley Hargis), and feels that the Travis County bond system is one of the most progressive programs in the state. Chris believes that when counties fail to offer personal bonds, they create a class system divide. Those who cannot afford to hire bondsmen have to wait in jail, despite not yet being proven guilty. Many individuals spend months in jail. It creates an incentive structure for those stuck in jail to plea out their case just to get out of jail, leading to potentially unjust legal outcomes.

It also hurts both the criminal defense attorneys as well as the county. If defendants are forced to spend their financial resources on bondsmen, then they are less likely to be able to afford a criminal defense attorney and more likely to apply for a county-funded court-appointed lawyer. Also, keeping people behind bars costs tax dollars.

Many criminal defense attorneys are concerned about Plohetski’s misleading claims. In response to the article, judges have made it more difficult for defendants to obtain personal bonds.  And in response to Plohetski calling for more District Attorney involvement, the DA is trying to become more involved. Yet, this is redundant in that the county already pays for a program called Pretrial Services, which assesses whether a personal bond should be granted by investigating an individual’s criminal history and ties to the community, as well as the safety of any victims if the defendant is released.  DA involvement would merely duplicate Pretrial Services’ role, leading to a slower, less efficient process.

Further, Plohetski claims that it is inappropriate for defense attorneys to talk to judges ex parte (without the opposing side present). Chris Perri disagrees, and states that in Travis County, prosecutors talk to judges without the defense attorney present in order to raise bond amounts or add burdensome conditions (such as an electronic monitor).   Also, every judge requires extensive information on each case and reviews the recommendations of Pretrial Services. However, judges can overrule Pretrial Services' recommendations if they see fit.

Chris also says, in his experience, the type of bond doesn't matter as to whether or not a defendant will show up for court. It is uncommon for people to commit crimes while on bond, as people understand the severity of the ramifications. Yet, there will always be people who don’t adhere to the rules, regardless of their type of bond.

The progressive Travis County bond system isn’t broken—it just needs to be better understood.