FORT WORTH - 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.
Prosecutors, who have come to rely on DNA evidence to help
make cases, said they will conduct a criminal investigation into the workings
of the DNA crime lab.
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
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."
Carmichael referred 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 Department."
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.
"Periodically we 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
The contents of the UNT letter, dated March 26, were not disclosed.
Police Chief Ralph Mendoza was out of town Friday and Saturday.
Assistant City Manager Libby Watson said the Police Department
has been actively addressing concerns raised about the DNA lab, including
bringing in the DNA experts from UNT after questions about Carmichael's
test results were raised in October.
Watson said the large-scale review was initiated after the
UNT experts examined Carmichael's proficiency test.
"The chief 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.
Fort Worth isn't the only large Texas city with crime lab
An independent 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
Curtis said that in addition to Aviles' internal review, the
Police Department's major case unit will soon begin an inquiry to determine
whether a criminal investigation is warranted.
"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
Levy said the police investigation will be separate from the
one done by the district attorney's office.
"The only 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 investigation."
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.
DNA, or 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 evidence."
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.
"Anytime you're 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
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.
"This 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 other people in the same position."
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. "That's how we anticipated handling it, by providing additional training,
trying to make sure we had all the right standards and procedures in place."
But prosecutors said they would no longer accept the lab's
DNA testing unless the results were verified by the Tarrant County Medical
Examiner's Office or UNT, which is reviewing lab work and the lab's procedures
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.
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 purged from CODIS and the FBI's National DNA Indexing System, at the
request of Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford.
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 certification.
But the integrity of the scientists' work was not discussed.
Councilman Chuck 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 expert.
"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 jury.
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.
"Yes," replied Carmichael.
"That's a pretty important role, isn't it?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
"And that's done by a lab that's under, I think it's fair
to say, scrutiny at this point?" Hardy asked.
"Correct," Carmichael said.
Staff Writer Melody McDonald contributed to this report.