DNA testing for criminal cases halted after defects found

Defective DNA kits affect criminal cases

DALLAS -- The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office has halted DNA testing for criminal cases after defects were found with the county crime lab’s new DNA test kits.

The problem will result in the DNA testing in dozens of cases having to be redone.

County lab officials recently notified the DA’s office of the issue. Lab officials are in the process of replacing the kits. For now, the lab has stopped all DNA testing for cases that were slated to go to trial.

Officials expect to resume DNA testing by September.

“It’s not fatally defective in any of the cases,” said First Assistant DA Mike Snipes. “It’s a slowdown in the administration of justice. The upshot of this is that we cannot rely on any test results from the new kits that came online this year. It doesn’t affect any cases where we’ve already gotten convictions.”

The issue revolves around new kits that the county’s crime lab began using in March. The kits were made by Qiagen, a German research company.

Because the FBI had expanded the requirements for DNA testing profiles, it required labs like Dallas County's Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences, or SWIFS, to get new DNA testing kits.

Lab officials quickly realized there was a problem with the kits. They were not distinguishing between human DNA and that from bacteria and fungus in some cases.

“This is a technical issue,” said Tim Sliter, a section chief with SWIFS.

Sliter says the lab sent over the DNA testing results of about 30 cases. In those cases, the anomaly did not occur.

However, in about 50 other cases, the anomaly did occur, so the lab did not report those results to prosecutors.

Sliter says that although testing for trials has been halted for now, the lab will continue to use the Qiagen kits for investigative work for the time being.

The state's Department of Public Safety labs had recently started using the Qiagen kits.

Catherine Bernhard, a Dallas defense attorney, said she had recently heard from a couple of prosecutors that they were having a tough time finding out from SWIFs when DNA testing would be completed or even started.

“What they expressed was that they were being stonewalled,” Bernhard said. “They thought something was up but they didn’t know what.”

Bernhard has a client, who has been in jail for 14 months on a capital murder case. 

“It’s probably going to cause us to approach the judge about letting him out on bond,” she said. “He didn’t have a firm trial date because we were waiting on the DNA.”

Toby Shook, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, said the crime lab’s quick action averted a potential disaster.

“Since they caught it so soon, I don’t think it’s going to be that big a deal,” Shook said. “I think the only thing you’re going to see are some minor delays in cases. If this had gone on a long time and cases had been tried, yes that’d be a major problem.”

© 2017 WFAA-TV


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