DNA scientist a no-show at Lake Waco murders hearing

54th District Court Judge Matt Johnson listens to defense attorney Walter Reavis during the Anthony Melendez DNA hearing Friday.

A California DNA scientist whose lab has analyzed evidence from the decades-old Lake Waco triple murders did not appear in a Waco court Friday as ordered, causing yet another delay in a protracted effort to exonerate one of the men convicted in the crime.

Alan Keel was subpoenaed to appear in McLennan County’s 54th State District Court as part of a motion filed by Waco attorney Walter M. Reaves Jr.

The motion seeks new DNA testing on evidence from the murder case. Reaves thinks the DNA testing will clear his client, Anthony Melendez.

Melendez, 53, is the only one of four men prosecuted in the case who still is alive. He is serving two life sentences for the crime, which claimed the lives of three teenagers.

Reaves filed the motion last October. But District Judge Matt Johnson has not been able to rule on the testing request because the Richmond, Calif., lab where Keel works has refused to release the genetic material in question.

Keel’s appearance Friday was meant to help resolve the matter.

Reaves said the scientist’s no-show was surprising. At a February 15 court hearing in California, Keel told the judge he would make the trip and also told Reaves he would use the occasion to visit his mother, who lives in Texas, Reaves said.

“I fully expected him to be here,” Reaves said.

In response to Keel’s failure to appear, Johnson issued a “writ of attachment.” If Keel were a Texas resident, it would enable law enforcement to bring him to court. But because he lives in California, Reaves said, he was unsure how the writ can be enforced.

“It’s something we’re going to have to look at,” Reaves said.

Reaves has been assisted in the matter by an attorney associated with the California Innocence Project. He said he will once again ask for her help.

Keel, reached by phone Friday, said the reason he didn’t show up in court is that Reaves did not contact him about travel arrangements. Pressed on the fact that he has been subpoenaed, Keel said the document spelled out conditions of his appearance.

“Apparently none of those conditions were met or I would be there,” Keel said.

Reaves said that explanation doesn’t hold up. The subpoena specified that Reaves had to pay Keel for his travel, lodging and food costs, plus $250 per hour for his court testimony. But there is nothing in the document which says the money must be paid in advance, rather than reimbursed after the fact.

“If it was me and I was under subpoena, I would have contacted me and seen what the deal was,” Reaves said.

Reaves and his partner in the exoneration effort, author Fredric Dannen, first sent evidence to the California lab about a decade ago. It is headed by scientist Ed Blake, who at the time was a national leader in post-conviction DNA testing.

The lab performed tests on several items from the crime scene, including terry-cloth strips and shoelaces used to tie up the victims, and genetic material from underneath one of the victim’s fingernails. But the tests did not yield usable information because of certain characteristics of the evidence, such as the amount of dirt on the shoelaces.

Reaves and Dannen think a newer type of testing the California lab does not perform could overcome those challenges. They asked the lab to send biological samples extracted from the evidence to a Texas lab that uses the more advanced technique. No more usable material appears to be left on the physical evidence itself.

Keeping evidence

But Keel’s lab, called Forensic Science Associates, has refused to do so. It claims the extracts are its work product and that even though the lab has been paid in excess of $10,000 for testing, it should retain the extracts and related data.

Reaves and Dannen have said that claim is ludicrous. The act of moving genetic material from physical evidence to a test tube doesn’t make it the lab’s property, they argue.

At the California hearing, Keel maintained that position. But he also told Reaves the lab might be able to prepare a report with its findings, and possibly send the extracts along with that, for an estimated fee of $30,000, Reaves said.

Scientists previously contacted by the Tribune-Herald about the lab’s work product claim said it is indefensible and outside of scientific protocol.

 

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