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Controversy over test procedures at a Texas DNA crime lab has critics calling for national review standards for forensic facilities. A recent probe into the Hidalgo County crime lab in McAllen, Texas, revealed faulty test procedures that halted DNA testing at the lab for two months last summer, and resulted in the retesting of at least 300 specimens. The lab did not perform DNA tests from June 16 to Sept. 26, pending an audit by the Department of Public Safety. But the problems at the lab were publicly revealed this month by the Houston Chronicle. The alleged problems included reused chemicals, poorly sealed test kits and expired chemical reagents. Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra asserted that no evidence was mishandled by the lab. But at least one Hidalgo County defense attorney, Hector Villarreal, a solo practitioner in Edinburg, Texas, claims that the problems with the McAllen lab could affect about a dozen of his pending cases. “No one is fessing up to anything yet,” said Villarreal, “but the situation presents a lack of truthfulness in the Department of Public Safety.” The troubles at the McAllen lab came on the heels of similar problems in Houston. The Houston Police Department’s DNA division has been shut since December 2002 amid concerns over the accuracy of its work. The effort to retest results that came out of the lab has proved inconclusive in more than a dozen cases, including three capital murders and a sexual assault. A national concern? Defense attorneys say the lack of a national licensing process and poor oversight of testing facilities reveal deep problems in DNA testing labs across the nation. “Texas is a glaring example of what’s wrong,” charged Jeffrey E. Thoma of the Mendocino County, Calif., public defender’s office. Thoma was a member of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence that was convened by the National Institute of Justice under former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Texas does not have laws that entitle convicted people to further DNA testing to support a claim of innocence, according to Thoma. Legislation is slowly moving through Congress that would make post-conviction DNA testing available to support a claim of innocence in federal cases. Many states-such as New York, California and Illinois-have already adopted those measures, Thoma said. Texas, a death penalty state, has not. Thoma also emphasizes the need for national oversight of DNA facilities. “There is no licensed superbody making certain that procedures are up to par,” he noted. Many local jurisdictions that introduce DNA testing do it on a primitive scale and are underfunded, he added. Lab technicians may not be properly certified and very few labs are spontaneously “spot checked,” he said. These problems concern defense lawyers like John Niland, the director of the Trial Consulting Project at the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit law firm that handles death row defenses. Typically it is the most severe cases that involve DNA, such as murder or sexual assault, according to Niland, and the evidence can be foremost in the minds of a jury. “DNA has risen to a point where it is viewed by the public as the best evidence that is out there,” Niland said. The problems in the McAllen lab were not immediately disclosed, he said, and Niland questions the state’s willingness to step up and make reforms. “There is a culture in this state that seems to look the other way,” he alleged. Guerra, the Hidalgo County district attorney, asserted that the lab never closed, but rather outsourced its testing during the audit by the Department of Public Safety. As to the expired chemicals and poorly sealed test kits, Guerra attributed those to a vacated work station that the lab had not yet cleaned up. “Some people have expired milk in their refrigerators,” said Guerra. “It doesn’t mean they drink it.” Texas is not the only state with forensic problems. Labs in several states have been investigated for problems in the last two years. In Florida, an analyst for the state Department of Law Enforcement admitted to falsifying the results of a test designed to check the accuracy of the Orlando crime lab’s DNA results. In Indiana last year, the Marion County crime lab was ordered to retest samples in 64 criminal cases after learning that a technician may have skipped steps. Of the country’s largest 455 crime labs, about half are accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, according to the group. Some states, such as New York and Oklahoma, have begun requiring accreditation.

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