The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Sunday, April 13, 2003
By Deanna Boyd
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
A review of
three years' worth of DNA evidence processed by the Fort Worth Police
Department's crime lab is under way after a proficiency
test revealed that a senior forensic scientist did not follow
proper procedures and protocol.
The review will
involve almost 100 cases handled by the crime lab. Prosecutors in the Tarrant
County District Attorney's office said they were angry because city officials
didn't address problems called to their attention three years ago.
Karla Carmichael, the
forensic scientist whose proficiency test raised questions, was placed on paid
leave Friday. She joined the crime lab in 1999.
Deputy Police Chief
Larry Curtis said DNA experts with the University of North Texas Health Science
Center recently raised concerns about Carmichael's proficiency test that
mirrored those of the DNA scientist who initially reviewed her test results. In
a proficiency test, the DNA analyst is given a sample to evaluate; the analyst's
procedures and results are then reviewed by another scientist in the lab.
The questions about the reliability of DNA results are the latest setback for the crime lab, which is just beginning to address case backlogs, staff shortages and an inadequate facility.
The lab stopped doing
DNA testing in October after questions about Carmichael's work prompted
prosecutors to not pursue the death penalty
in a capital murder case. Prosecutors said second-opinion DNA test
results by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's office conflicted with those
done by Carmichael.
The integrity of
Carmichael's work was at issue again last week during a murder trial.
Curtis said lab
director Phil Aviles, who was hired nine months ago, is reviewing all DNA cases
tested by scientists, including Carmichael,
in the lab in the past three years.
In its initial
stages, Curtis said, the review has found nothing to indicate Carmichael
"deliberately did something to alter a case."
questions to her attorney, John Hunter Smith with the Combined Law Enforcement
Association of Texas. Smith said Carmichael
is scheduled to meet with police administrators Thursday to discuss
her employment status.
"We look forward
to presenting our side of the story regarding the past practices of the crime
lab which Ms. Carmichael is now being subsequently punished for," Smith said. "Ms. Carmichael
stands by the work she has done during her tenure with the Police
Alan Levy, chief of
the criminal division for the district attorney's office, received a copy of
UNT's findings Friday. He said he was not shocked by what he read, noting that
he and other prosecutors have brought concerns about a "long series of
problems of the crime lab" to the city's attention numerous times over the
past three years.
have re-emphasized our position that the crime lab needed to be
re-examined," Levy said. "We didn't get any response from anybody in
the city, either from the police administration or the City Manager's Office."
The contents of the
UNT letter, dated March 26, were not disclosed.
Police Chief Ralph
Mendoza was out of town Friday and Saturday.
City Manager Libby Watson said the Police Department has
Watson said the
large-scale review was initiated after the UNT experts examined Carmichael's
directed that the district attorney's office be notified that, at this point, we don't have any confidence in any of her
cases until we can conduct a review of all of them," Watson said.
"It's one of
those cases where what you don't know can hurt you, which is why we've jumped
into investigating this so fully," she said.
Pat Kneblick, the
executive deputy chief, said the Police Department has been making changes to
improve the lab.
"We've known and
been trying to work at improvements in the crime lab and recognize that was a
weakness," Kneblick said.
Worth isn't the only large Texas city with crime lab problems.
quality-assurance audit of Houston's DNA testing section, conducted by the
Department of Public Safety and the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's crime lab,
identified several deficiencies in documentation and record keeping as well as
in the handling of evidence samples.
Results from the
audit prompted Houston police in January to suspend DNA testing in the lab until
the deficiencies can be corrected and the cases reviewed.
Last month, Josiah
Sutton was freed from prison after retesting of evidence used to convict him of
rape in 1999 found that the Houston lab's analysis was flawed.
"Of course, we
don't want to get into a situation like Houston has gotten into," Curtis
said. "We're always concerned about whether or not analysts have provided a
result or testimony that may have unjustly incarcerated someone."
said that in addition to Aviles' internal review, the Police
"Their role will
be to coordinate with Phil and whoever else that we may bring in to look at the
cases to determine whether or not something was done deliberately to alter a
result or to change a document," Curtis said.
Levy said the police
investigation will be separate from the one done
question is who's going to conduct it, who's going to be involved and how many
prosecutors," Levy said. "It's not an inquiry. It's a criminal
Levy said the
problems in the DNA lab have prompted his office to seek independent testing on
cases where DNA was vital to the case during the past two years.
deoxyribonucleic acid, is genetic material. Each person has a unique DNA pattern
that can be determined by testing tissue such as hair or body fluids. DNA tests
use those unique patterns to determine whether a person is linked to hair or
body fluids found at a crime scene.
Levy said he has also
notified defense lawyers, advising them to seek their own testing as well.
"We're not in
the situation that Houston is in," Levy said. "I don't think it's going to result in a lot of post-conviction litigation,
because we protected the office and the state from using that kind of
On Friday, Levy
forwarded a copy of the 2 1/2-page UNT letter about Carmichael to Larry Moore,
president-elect of the Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. On
Monday, Levy plans to send the letter to individual defense lawyers.
Curtis and Aviles
declined to release the letter to the Star-Telegram.
Moore said the letter
was disconcerting, but he praised the district attorney's office for bringing it
to the group's attention.
talking about some improprieties or problems in DNA testing, it's very important
because it's such powerful evidence," Moore said. "If the processes
that have been used are incorrect, and the results are thus suspect, it really
calls into question a lot of evidence that may have already been admitted into
criminal cases or cases that are pending."
Moore said defense
lawyers had heard about crime lab problems but may not have been as vigilant in
seeking independent DNA testing. Moore said he has handled cases in which
Carmichael performed the DNA tests.
information makes me look back and say I should have done this
differently," Moore said. "I'm afraid there's going to be a lot of
When questions about
Carmichael's work surfaced in the October capital murder case, she stood by her
results. Curtis said Carmichael was never disciplined in the case.
"At this point, we thought this was a training issue," he said.
But prosecutors said
they would no longer accept the lab's DNA
As a result, Aviles
said, the lab is sending DNA for testing to other labs until scientists can
become certified to conduct DNA analysis.
"The only thing
we are doing at the present time is identifying cases, pre-screening cases for
blood, body fluid, what have you; and then any DNA, we are sending that
out," Aviles said.
scientists are still entering DNA profiles completed by outside contractors into
the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.
CODIS enables crime
labs to search for possible DNA matches between evidence at the scene and
convicted offenders on the local, state and federal levels. It can also help
agencies link a case with no identified suspect to other no-suspect cases.
Last month, cases
examined by the Houston police crime lab were
Fort Worth Mayor
Kenneth Barr said the questions about a scientist's work and the subsequent
review and investigation have not been brought to the City Council's attention.
"It is a serious
matter, and we'll see that it gets serious attention in determining what are the
appropriate steps at this point in time," Barr said. "It concerns me
very much to hear that there's a likelihood that there's a problem."
In February, the
council approved using $1.6 million from the Crime Control and Prevention
District to build a new lab. The council also approved spending $120,000 from
the district's reserve funds so that the police lab can gain immediate DNA
But the integrity of
the scientists' work was not discussed.
Silcox said Saturday he was troubled that the lab's credibility is being
questioned. Silcox said the review of cases should be done by an outside DNA
"How can [the
public] trust us with what we've brought forward when one or more scientists
have not done a correct job?" he said. "Have we put people in prison
because of that? Have we released people who didn't need to be released?"
Last week, defense
lawyers for Curtis Wayne Pope Jr., a 40-year-old man convicted Friday of murder,
frequently attacked the crime lab's credibility outside the presence of the
Called to testify,
Carmichael was repeatedly asked about problems in the crime lab and why the
district attorney's office is retesting cases
analyzed by lab scientists.
Carmichael, who was
among lab workers who repackaged samples from the case to send to an independent lab for testing, told lawyers that
concerns surrounding the lab have focused on "the actual data generated
through DNA analysis, which we did nothing like that on this case."
"You are the party responsible, though, for obtaining the specimen of -- the known samples of Curtis Pope in this case, correct?" asked defense attorney Stephen Handy, according to testimony transcripts.
"That's a pretty
important role, isn't it?" he asked.
"And that's done
by a lab that's under, I think it's fair to say, scrutiny at this point?"
Staff Writer Melody McDonald contributed to this report.