Dispatch from Dallas: Looking Inside the Lab


By Huy Dao and Maggie Taylor

We’re in Dallas, Texas, this week for a tour of the Orchid Cellmark DNA lab and meetings with our colleagues at the Innocence Project of Texas. Yesterday, we had a chance to see what goes on inside a working forensic laboratory.

In our day-to-day work at the Innocence Project, we evaluate cases submitted to the Innocence Project for potential legal representation. As we review and investigate these cases, we are often called on to determine whether DNA testing would be possible on a specific piece of evidence from a specific crime scene. While we have been to DNA labs before, and we’re always exploring literature on new forensic technologies, it was invigorating to tour the laboratory where many of our actual tests are done. Orchid Cellmark conducts DNA testing for some Innocence Project cases (and some of these tests are done pro bono by the lab).

We were hosted by

Cassie Johnson

, a forensic analyst and the leader of one of three testing teams at Cellmark. Yesterday, she showed us around the facilities, from the evidence room, through to the staging areas where evidence is analyzed, extracted, and prepared for testing, and ending up gazing at the imposing "


" machine that runs the actual samples. Along the way, we were introduced to many of the staff, including familiar names from many Innocence Project laboratory reports. Having sated our curiosity regarding what the laboratory actually looks like and what really happens to evidence once it is boxed and shipped, Cassie spent hours with us discussing new technologies that will open up even more options for post-conviction testing and giving us a refresher on the more recent technologies that have been incorporated into Cellmark's impressive array of DNA testing options, including Y-STR and mini-STR testing.  

Most importantly, we were able to discuss the potential applications of these testing methods to our evaluation of cases, especially complicated cases where we may have to use different types of testing on varied sources of evidence. Of course, we also learned about some of the especially unusual evidence they've processed. We’re appreciative of Cassie and the staff at Orchid Cellmark for opening their doors to us and for a wealth of knowledge imparted.

Today, we’re meeting with Jason Partney, the case director at the Innocence Project of Texas, to discuss how both organizations work and how they might work better together. We’ll post more about that tomorrow morning.

Huy Dao is the Innocence Project’s Case Director and Maggie Taylor is the senior Case Coordinator.

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