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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Showdown over DNA lab reflects national debate

In June, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas made a bold grab for a crown jewel of local law enforcement: the DNA unit of the sheriff's crime lab.

With the lab's director out of town and the sheriff recently deposed by corruption charges, Rackauckas submitted a brief agenda item to county supervisors two business days before their regular meeting.
"Our aim is to make significant changes in the way forensic DNA analysis is conducted," Rackauckas wrote. The D.A.'s office is "the only organization capable of harnessing the vast potential of forensic DNA technology."


The move capped a three-year tug of war for control of DNA analysis in a historically conservative county where putting criminals behind bars can bring substantial political rewards.

"I have never experienced anything like it in more than 30 years of law enforcement," recalled Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who took over the department in the midst of the battle. "I couldn't get my brain around it, and no one I've spoken with could either."

To end the bickering, one member of the Board of Supervisors proposed putting the county's entire crime lab in the hands of an independent agency headed by a scientist. But, in the end, the board split control among the political players: the D.A., the sheriff and the county chief executive.

The power struggle in Orange County is a sign of an intensifying national debate over who should control forensic science -- a question that has taken on new importance with the explosion of genetic evidence. [Mark Godsey]

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