Austin Crime Lab Scientist Fired, Files Complaints

Debra Stephens was fired from the Austin Police Department in April of last year. She says this firing was due to her whistleblowing on the lab, raising concerns with department officials last January. Now no longer employed with the lab, she has formally filed complaints with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. She says the lab does not perform quality work and should not be used for evidence testing.

Police officials say Stephens’ allegations are unfounded and maintain their lab work is on the up-and-up. “It has become apparent that Ms. Stephens is an angry former employee and is now looking to bring discredit to the Austin Police Department’s crime lab,” according to the Assistant Police Chief Sean Mannix.

The basis of Stephens’ complaint is that drug evidence is not being analyzed before reports are being submitted to the District Attorney’s office. In particular, she states that drug evidence in fast-tracked cases is not being tested and instead, lab workers are saying the substance is a controlled substance without scientific validation.

It’s not completely uncommon for police to misidentify drugs or to believe something is a controlled substance when it isn’t, merely because of the similar appearance of the evidence. If the mistake isn’t caught by the scientists in the crime lab, such a mistake could result in jail time for someone who is otherwise innocent.

Stephens alleges “results are being reported and charges are being filed without any analysis being conducted at all.” She says she believes hundreds of cases analyzed by the crime lab since 2005 were done “without regard to laboratory protocols.”

According to the department, Stephens was fired for violating policies and procedures; further clarification is not being made public. Her initial complaints, forwarded to the national accrediting organization and to the Texas Forensic Science Commission were said to be baseless, according to those organizations.

In a similar case, a former lab analyst complained on the integrity of the DNA lab. That lab was then investigated by the DPS and the FBI, both of which found no deficiencies. The DPS and the Texas Rangers both cleared that lab of wrongdoing in the investigation.

The impact of Stephens’ allegations are yet unknown, though the department believes they are all without merit. A deputy assistant director of the lab sent a letter addressing Stephens’ complaints, however, and stated that they identified two cases where no drug testing was done before a report was emailed to prosecutors.

When you are charged with a crime and there is physical evidence involved, the integrity of the agency tasked with handling that evidence should be verified. If there is any question to the methods of evaluation and handling used by that agency, your defense lawyer could use those questions as a basis to challenge the evidence’s admissibility.

Contact our offices today to discuss the evidence against you and how it could affect the outcome of your case.

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