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Suspected Mishandling of DNA Tests Puts Cases on Hold in Fort Worth, Texas

by Michael Berk

The Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office has put 117 criminal cases on hold in response to suspected misconduct involving DNA testing by a Fort Worth forensic scientist.

On February 27, 2019, Amanda Schaffner’s supervisor at the crime lab noticed that there was no digital record of a “quantification performance check” she had purportedly run the previous day. During internal interviews, Schaffner “admitted that she had made numerous mistakes” but insisted that the work had been done properly. She then claimed to have found proof in the form of a “performance check plate” she later located in the trash.

In an Internal Affairs memo, the manager of the crime lab’s Forensic Science Division noted that key card and video surveillance logs contradicted Schaffner’s statements regarding her actions on the day in question and that typos and other identifying information led Schaffner’s supervisor to doubt the veracity of her explanation.

The Conviction Integrity Unit of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office was notified about the issue on March 4, 2019, and its chief, Dawn Boswell, commended the crime lab for promptly “stopping everything and identifying the cases” that might be affected. The labs are required to report employee conduct that could be considered exculpatory, impeachment, or mitigating evidence in a criminal case, and the D.A.’s Office is required, in turn, to disclose such information to defense counsel under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).

These notifications are a conservative measure, and the identification of any particular case doesn’t necessarily mean it was actually affected. Schaffner’s role in each of the nearly 400 DNA analysis reports bearing her signature since 2015 is unclear. As such, the notices are generally being made under seal “to guard against mistakenly disclosing inaccurate information in a public realm when we won’t know the complete and accurate details until the investigation is done,” according to Boswell.

That being said, at least one defense attorney already intends to challenge his client’s plea as involuntary following the disclosure. Donnell Ray Page, age 18, pleaded guilty on March 14, 2019, to a charge of murder and accepted a 45-year plea deal just hours before his attorney, Jack Strickland, was informed of the DNA testing issue.

This latest concern isn’t the first time the Tarrant County D.A.’s Office has had to deal with such scrutiny. A 2003 criminal investigation focusing first on the DNA lab, and then spreading to encompass the crime lab’s bloodwork, weapons, and chemistry sections, found “widespread problems” and “troubling practices” but no wrongful convictions or charges.

Schaffner has been suspended with pay as the situation continues to unfold. 

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Sources: star-telegram.com, nbcdfw.com

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