Dallas County Family Court drug tests questioned

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on June 27, 2012 at 11:42 PM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

DALLAS — The outcome of hundreds, perhaps thousands of family court cases in North Texas are being called into question.

The debate centers on one man widely regarded as the top drug test expert at the Dallas County Civil Courts building. But is he really an expert? And what impact has his testimony had on divorce and custody cases throughout the region?

Jim Turnage is the president of Forensic DNA and Drug Testing Services of Dallas. He can be found most days at civil courthouses in Dallas, Tarrant, Collin and Denton counties.

His job is to conduct drug tests, mostly for family court and some criminal court cases.

Dallas County Family Court judges assign almost all their drug test cases to Turnage. He claims to have provided expert testimony in more than 700 of those cases.

“I've been doing this for 30 years,” Turnage said. “I've been a lab technician in the early 90s; I meet with toxicologists, deal with toxicologists on a daily basis. I've attended seminars, I've learned from the toxicologists and the lab directors."

But does that qualify him to testify as an expert in cases in which drug test results could determine custody, livelihood... even guilt or innocence?

According to his one-page biography, Turnage holds an associate arts degree and did not graduate from college.

Forensic toxicologist Dwain Fuller, who has also provided expert testimony in court and has a 19-page biography, says an expert in the drug testing field should at least have a background in science.

"If you misinterpret the tests, you put people in danger,” Fuller said. “Depending on what court you are talking about, you could lose the custody of your children, you could lose your livelihood... you could lose your freedom."

Earlier this week, we watched Turnage testify for 15 minutes about drug test results he had collected in a parental custody case.

We later asked Turnage if in every case he was qualified to make the judgment about what the toxicology results mean.

“Not in every case, no,” Turnage said. “I'll tell them if I'm not."

But News 8 has learned that in 2005, a custody case was reversed by the Court of Appeals in Dallas which ruled:

"Turnage was not qualified to give an opinion as to the results of the scientific tests on the hair samples his company collected."

The court ruled that Turnage's "...opinion ... was beyond the scope of his expertise."

Last year, in response to a complaint filed against Turnage, the Texas Forensic Science Commission issued the following statement:

"The Commission is concerned about the scientific validity of the interpretations rendered by Turnage ... as well as his credentials to render such opinions."

"I think they are wrong in submitting that report, because they didn't contact me to even investigate the claims," Turnage complained.

The Forensic Science Commission took no action against Turnage and there are no laws requiring him to have specific credentials in order to provide testimony.

Forensic toxicologist Dr. Gary Wimbish defends Turnage. "He's extremely well qualified on issues of urine sample custody and collection issues,” Wimbish said. “When it comes to questions of toxicology, he certainly will defer to me or another toxicologist."

Attorney Keith Nelson represents the Dallas man who complained to the state about Turnage. Nelson said Turnage's lack of a science background resulted in a faulty interpretation of his client's drug test.

“My concern is, there is a serious risk, and maybe even a probability that hundreds and potentially thousands of innocent family law litigants and criminal defendants have been affected by Mr. Turnage opining about the meaning of these test results when he's not qualified to do so," Nelson said.

Apart from Nelson's client, we are not aware of any other complaints about Turnage. We do have questions as to why Dallas County Family Courts use Turnage almost exclusively.

We tried to ask Dallas County Family Courts Presiding Judge Lori Hockett that question, but she has not returned our calls.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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