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Lamarcus Turner

Other Texas Exonerations for Drug Possession or Sale
On December 17, 2013, a police officer in Austin, Texas, stopped 33-year-old Lamarcus Turner and said he was driving too fast in a school zone.

Officer Frank Gobourne would later say that after the stop, he smelled marijuana smoke coming from Turner’s car. He ordered Turner out of the car and searched him and the vehicle. Gobourne found no drugs or weapons on Turner, but he found a small amount of marijuana residue on the floor and seats of the vehicle, as well as two scales, plastic baggies, and several cell phones. In addition, Turner had about $2,000 in cash. Turner said he knew nothing about the marijuana residue, and no other drugs were found.

Turner fled while Gobourne completed the search. He was arrested a short while later and charged with evading an officer, a misdemeanor. While Turner was in custody, a police dog walked through the area where police arrested Turner. About 25-30 feet from the point of arrest, the animal alerted on two baggies with white powder on top of a trash can.

Testing by the police reported that the baggies contained 20 grams of cocaine.

Using a search warrant, police obtained a DNA sample from Turner on December 17, and this evidence and the baggies were sent to the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab.

Diana Morales, a lab analyst, issued a report on April 29, 2014. She wrote: “The DNA profile from the swabbing from the 2 BAGS OF WHITE POWDERY SUBSTANCE (Item 1.1) is consistent with a mixture of at least three individuals. Lamarcus Turner cannot be excluded as a contributor to this profile. The probability of selecting an unrelated person at random who could be a contributor to this profile is approximately 1 in 2.117 billion for Caucasians, 1 in 565.6 million for African Americans, and 1 in 2.124 billion for Hispanics.”

Turner, who is Black, was charged with possession of cocaine on May 7, 2014. He pled guilty to the drug charge on October 19, 2015, and he received a 10-year prison sentence. He had already pled guilty on January 29, 2014, to the evasion charge and served 45 days in jail.

In 2016, the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) audited the Austin DNA lab and found significant problems with its methods for interpreting DNA samples, particularly those with samples that contain more than one contributor or where there was incomplete or insufficient testing material, an issue that can lead to “allele dropout” in the genetic markers.

DNA analysts can attempt to interpret these dropouts, but it must be done with care and caution. The audit said the Austin lab used a methodology that was outdated and “neither scientifically valid nor supported by the forensic DNA community.” Equally important, it was making decisions based on whether the sample being tested was from a victim or a suspect.

According to a report prepared for the city by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania: “The Austin Police Department DNA technical leader refused to acknowledge that the approach was unfit for its designated purpose. The TFSC was left questioning whether the technical leader fully understood the scientific principles behind the observation that the method was flawed but refused to acknowledge the shortcoming, or whether he truly did not appreciate the insufficiency of the approach and potential repercussions in forensic casework. Either explanation was unacceptable considering the importance of accurate DNA analysis to the fair administration of justice.”

On June 13, 2016, the police department suspended the DNA lab from active casework. The Texas Department of Public Safety took over the lab’s operation in 2017.

After the audit, the Capital Area Private Defender Service in Austin formed the Forensic Project to review convictions based on DNA reports generated from the Austin lab prior to July 2016. In some cases, this involved retesting of genetic material.

Dr. Bruce Budowle, the director of the University of North Texas Health Science Center’s Center for Human Identification, retested the baggies related to Turner’s conviction in 2018. Budowle helped lead the initial audit of the Austin lab.

In a report dated May 2, 2018, Budowle said that the genetic material on the baggies was “highly complex.” He also said there was potential for allele dropout at all the loci – the places where genetic material is stored on DNA. Because of these issues, the probability of inclusion statistics cited by Morales could not be supported. He said the proper interpretation of the DNA mixture was “inconclusive.”

Turner, working through attorneys at the Forensic Project, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on May 1, 2019. A stay was granted on May 6, 2019, while the attorneys gathered additional evidence. A memorandum in support of the motion was filed on July 2, 2021.

Turner had been released from prison on September 1, 2020, but was on parole, which the memorandum noted was a restraint on his liberty.

The memorandum said that Morales had acknowledged having an inadequate understanding of the proper method for DNA mixture interpretation at the time she performed the testing on the baggies. “The DNA evidence that was relied upon by the State to secure Applicant’s plea agreement was not probative and reliable evidence, but rather, inconclusive evidence,” the memorandum said.

In an affidavit, Turner said, “Had I known that the alleged DNA evidence was inconclusive, I would not have pleaded guilty.”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writ and vacated Turner’s conviction on December 15, 2021, writing: “Applicant contends that his plea was involuntary because new scientific evidence reveals that inconclusive and unreliable DNA evidence was relied upon to secure his plea. The State and the habeas court both agree that he is entitled to relief.”

The state dismissed the charge on January 12, 2022.

In 2023, a second case, that of Billy Faircloth, was dismissed as part of the investigation of the laboratory.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 3/18/2022
Last Updated: 5/4/2023
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2013
Sentence:10 years
Age at the date of reported crime:33
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes