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'Express lane to death': Texas seeks approval to speed up death penalty appeals, execute more quickly

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Texas is seeking to speed up executions with a renewed request to opt-in to a federal law that would shorten the legal process and limit appeals options for death-sentenced prisoners.
Defense attorneys worry it would lead to the execution of innocent people and - if it's applied retroactively, as Texas is requesting - it could potentially end ongoing appeals for a number of death row prisoners and make them eligible for execution dates.
"Opt-in would speed up the death penalty treadmill exponentially," said Kathryn Kase, an longtime defense attorney and former executive director of Texas Defender Services.
But a state attorney general spokeswoman framed the request to the Justice Department as a necessary way to avoid "stressful delays" and cut down on the "excessive costs" of lengthy federal court proceedings.
Robbie Kaplan, co-founder of the #TimesUp movement, says sweeping changes to laws in recent years have dissuaded attorneys from taking on har…

Texas: Austin Scrambles with Fallout of Closed DNA Lab

More than a month after the Austin Police Department was forced to abruptly shut down its DNA testing lab, it remains unclear whether any criminal convictions will be thrown out because of improper testing. In the meantime, the city has arranged interim lab arrangements and is trying to cut down on a backlog of pending cases, according to officials.

In June, the Texas Forensic Science Commission told the department its audit had found that untrained staff and improper testing procedures raised concerns about the scientific validity of the lab's DNA test results. In an audit report released earlier this month, the commission did not comment on the possibility that the errors might have led to wrongful convictions.

The Travis County District Attorney's Office and Lynn Garcia, the commission's general counsel, declined to say if a systematic review of cases is being undertaken.

While the city seeks a new lab director and retrains staff, the state Department of Public Safety's lab has temporarily taken over some cases. Other work may be sent to private labs, officials said. The police department, DPS and the district attorney's office declined to answer specific questions about the closure. With the lab expected to remain closed for up to a year, experts say trials could be slowed down for some defendants waiting in jail, especially those who cannot afford lawyers.

“It’s also worrisome and devastating for cases where the primary evidence was DNA testing,” said Chris Perri, an Austin-based criminal defense attorney. “So there might be probably some wrongful convictions out there, but it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. They have a lot of work to go through, review every record and see which cases were the ones where DNA was the primary evidence.”

Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation alerted crime labs across the country that they were using obsolete methods to examine DNA samples containing genetic materials from multiple people. Some laboratories in Texas switched to a more conservative analytical approach, but the Austin crime lab struggled to adopt updated protocols, according to the audit.

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Source: Texas Tribune, Khorri Atkinson, July 30, 2016

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