The Texas Department of Public Safety recognizes that its crime lab system across the state has been unable to meet the demands of the criminal justice community.
DPS Director Steven C. McCraw said as much in a Sept. 26 letter to state Rep. Terry Canales, of Edinburg.
Canales chairs the House of Representatives Transportation Committee, which helps decide how DPS is funded.
McCraw was responding to a letter Canales penned that was prompted by a story in The Monitor, which highlighted the chronic backlog of DNA testing at the Weslaco crime lab. That backlog has resulted in serious criminal cases dragging on for years as well as speedy trial violations.
“Defendants are frequently and unnecessarily spending years in jail waiting for forensic evidence to be processed so that they can have their day in court,” Canales wrote. “This gross reality threatens the very essence of our legal system and the fabric of our democracy, and it devalues the credibility of the state’s governing bodies and law enforcement agency.”
The Weslaco crime lab analyzes evidence from 25 general offense types ranging from homicides to sexual assaults to arson.
Law enforcement agency requests to the crime lab include several categories encompassing alcohol and toxicology to DNA testing to firearms to seized drugs. Those requests come from all across the Rio Grande Valley.
A Texas Public Information Act request to DPS reveals that as of Sept. 17, the Weslaco crime lab had 2,656 unreleased requests, including 1,309 unreleased biology and DNA requests — nearly half of the lab’s total.
DNA evidence is valuable to both the state and to defense attorneys, as it can exonerate people accused of crimes or prove guilt. DNA evidence is also critical in the most serious of cases and is used by prosecutors to determine what punishment to pursue.
Take the case of 40-year-old Gabriel Keith Escalante, who is accused along with his girlfriend, 41-year-old Irene Navejar, of beating 53-year-old Alejandro Salinas Sr. to death and suffocating the man’s mother, 73-year-old Oliva Salinas, on April 23, 2018.
Depending on the DNA testing in this case, the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office may pursue the death penalty against the man, who has remained jailed on charges of capital murder of multiple persons on a $1.25 million bond for about 19 months, court testimony has shown.
McCraw, the DPS director, acknowledged the delays in the Weslaco crime lab’s DNA section in his response to Canales.
“With respect to the Weslaco laboratory and its DNA section, the root cause of the delays is the turnover of staff and the time it takes to train new staff. This is also true for all our laboratories,” McCraw wrote. “The Weslaco DNA section has not been fully staffed in the last five years. As new staff were hired, experienced staff were pulled from focusing primarily on casework analysis to also train new employees resulting in reduced overall capacity.”
The oldest pending DNA case at the lab is 792 days, a little more than two years, and the average turnaround for a DNA case is 300 days, according to information provided by DPS to the newspaper through the Texas Public Information Act.
For forensic biology testing, the oldest pending case is approximately 1,015 days old, with an average turnaround of 218 days.
The oldest pending cases in other categories, including firearms, fingerprint testing and seized drugs also stretch beyond 1,000 days.
For instance, the oldest firearms case pending is 1,187 days old while the average turnaround is 228 days. The oldest pending fingerprint testing case is 1,279 days old while the average turnaround is 255 days. Finally, the longest pending seized drug case is approximately 1,209 days old while the average case takes 90 days to complete.
However, just this year, DPS has received 5,890 requests for evidence testing in categories including seized drugs, toxicology, DNA, fingerprints and firearms with the bulk of those requests — 5,190 — falling under toxicology and seized drugs.
The lab has also completed thousands of requests this year in those same categories, for a grand total of 6,073 cases. In the month of August alone, analysts at the lab released results for 738 cases. Among those released, DNA and fingerprint cases had the longest shelf life before completion, with an average case age for DNA of 431 days and an average age for fingerprint testing of 353 days.
In short, the Weslaco crime lab is in high demand.
“With demand far outpacing current capacity, the laboratories continue efforts to increase communication with our client base,” McCraw wrote. “Laboratory staff have been meeting with the prosecutors in the service area to both explain our current status and to gather feedback on their needs.”
McCraw said DPS also encourages law enforcement and prosecutors to communicate their needs throughout the testing process.
“Agencies are urged to contact us directly with any concerns,” McCraw wrote. “Due to the overwhelming demand for services, this communication is critical to ensure the laboratory is aware of casework that needs to be expedited.”
Situations where DPS will expedite testing include threats to public safety, impact to court trials and jails, such as a suspect being confined for a long period of time pending lab results, high profile incidents that draw national media attention or other circumstances dictating the need for expedited analysis.
McCraw told Canales that additional forensic resources the legislature provided during the last session will positively impact the Weslaco crime lab, as well as DPS’s lab system across the state.
“The additional resources will allow the department to add more forensic scientists to our DNA team and add support staff to both the DNA and seized drug teams,” McCraw wrote. “These additional support staff will allow our current trained forensic scientists to focus on processing evidence and will increase the laboratory’s ability to complete the pending requests for forensic support.”
But training takes time, he said.
“The hiring and training of the new scientists can take up to 18 months, but once this is accomplished, they will make a significant impact in the Weslaco service area and across the state,” McCraw wrote.
The additional funding provided to DPS for its crime lab system will also be used to increase salaries and to help retain highly trained employees.
“To reduce the training impact on the regional laboratories, we are also moving to a centralized training model to become more responsive to our training needs,” McCraw wrote.
Lastly, McCraw said a process improvement expert is working with the DNA team in Weslaco to change workflow and eliminate unproductive steps.
“The project has shown successes in other parts of the state and will have a positive impact on the work being done in Weslaco,” McCraw wrote.
In the meantime, the issue of delays in DNA testing is ever present at the Hidalgo County Courthouse as murder suspects continue to sit in jail, waiting on lab results so they can have their day in court.