August 28, 2008
DNA taint found on gun in officer shooting case
A city crime lab employee left his own DNA on the pistol police say was used to kill an off-duty Baltimore detective, indicating that a recently discovered problem with contamination at the lab may be more widespread than officials originally believed.
Evidence from the murder trial of Brandon Grimes was not among the 12 instances city officials identified last week in which lab employees introduced their own DNA into crime evidence. But lab officials testified yesterday that there are thousands of partial strands of unknown DNA in evidence samples - like the one recovered from the pistol in the Grimes case - that must be checked by hand.
The Grimes case is the first in what city defense attorneys expect will be widespread challenges to DNA evidence processed in the Baltimore lab, whose director was fired last week amid concerns about contamination. In a scene that could play out in other trials, Grimes' attorney attempted to use the problems at the lab to broadly impeach physical evidence usually thought to be unassailable.
Rana Santos, technical chief of the lab's DNA section, said she checked the sample in the Grimes case Monday evening after reports of the contamination appeared in the media and she met with Grimes' defense attorney, Roland Walker. [Mark Godsey]
August 27, 2008
IMPD tries out DNA swabs on guns
During the next six months, officers will be using the Trigger ID device to swab guns before they are moved, enhancing the chances for recovering DNA evidence, according to a statement released by IMPD Lt. Jeff Duhamell.
"This device has the potential to increase arrests and the prosecution of individuals who commit gun crimes in our area," the statement said. "It will provide law enforcement officers with the latest technology so they can be as productive as possible when they're out on the streets fighting gun crime."
The Trigger ID kit contains three swabs and is small enough to fit in an officer's pocket. The swabs are designed collect DNA specimens from handguns in rain, snow or other harsh conditions.
"We're here today to put those with illegal firearms on notice that we have a new tool which can lead to better identification of suspects and their subsequent removal from our streets," Chief Michael Spears said in the statement. "IMPD is proud to be a pioneer in the use of this new technology."
The device was made by Indianapolis-based Forensic ID.
The device and testing services will cost $140,000 to $160,000 for 400 kits. The money is coming from a federal grant, officials said. [Mark Godsey]
August 21, 2008
City crime lab director fired
Baltimore crime analysts have been contaminating evidence with their own DNA - a revelation that led to the dismissal this week of the city Police Department's crime lab director and prompted questions yesterday from defense attorneys and forensic experts about the professionalism of the state's biggest and busiest crime lab.
Edgar Koch, who had been the city lab's director for the past decade, was fired Tuesday because of the DNA contamination and other "operational issues," said police spokesman Sterling Clifford.
He declined to elaborate on the other issues and said no one else was terminated.
City officials said the employee contamination did not lead to anyone being falsely accused of a crime, and they played down its importance.But Baltimore's top public defender called the findings "atrocious" and Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said she has asked her senior staff to review the potential impact on open and closed cases.
By introducing their own DNA into crime evidence, lab employees may have created more work for detectives and made prosecutions harder, as the presence of unknown DNA can leave the impression of a phantom suspect, experts said.
Defense attorneys said any flaws in the city's handling of DNA could raise broader questions about evidence that is generally considered infallible. As testing becomes more sophisticated and new standards for labs emerge, cities across the country, including Houston and Seattle, have been discovering contamination issues that in some cases led to convictions being overturned. [Mark Godsey]
August 18, 2008
Va. DNA Project Is In Uncharted Territory
After Eva King Jones, 88, was raped and killed in her small-town Virginia home, a local man was accused and convicted. Now, 33 years later, police say newly discovered DNA evidence has led to the arrest of someone else.
In most instances, the decades-old case would have remained tucked away on a courthouse shelf. But Virginia State Police recently reopened the investigation based on new genetic clues uncovered during the state's unprecedented effort to use modern-day technology to find, and exonerate, innocent people.
Since the $1.4 million project was launched almost three years ago, samples of blood, semen and saliva from about 400 rapes, killings and other serious crimes from the 1970s and 1980s have been reexamined. About 400 more cases will be analyzed. Virginia is entering uncharted legal territory as officials face ethical and practical questions about the best way to handle the evidence.
No determination has been made about whether anyone was wrongly convicted. Most don't even know about the tests. In at least eight cases, the convicts' DNA does not match crime samples.
Defense lawyers and legal scholars commend the project, the most extensive effort nationwide to use DNA to undo false convictions, but are pushing for a more transparent process. Several legal experts have criticized a state decision to notify convicts about the tests through a letter by certified mail. They say the convicts, who will learn in the letter only that tests were conducted and not the results, might not read well enough to understand or might be suspicious of the government. [Mark Godsey]
August 17, 2008
DNA testing major factor in proving innocence, convicting offenders
Nevada is once again in the bottom tier of progressive thinking.
A recent USA Today story identified the Silver State as among 25 in the country that lack requirements to preserve DNA evidence. This, despite a number of dramatic exonerations based on the critical biological material, the story said.
The Innocence Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to freeing wrongly convicted people through DNA testing, claims that since 1991, 218 defendants convicted of serious crimes of violence such as some form of sexual assault or involvement in a murder, were exonerated by DNA. Some had been on death row.
DNA evidence, however, can be a double-edged sword, assuring the convictions of those who have committed heinous offenses.
In Carson City, DNA evidence cinched the arrest and the conviction 25 years later in the sexual assault and murder of Shelia Jo Harris whose body was found in her Lompa Lane apartment.
The 18-year-old reining Miss Douglas County had been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled in 1982.
David Winfield Mitchell, a citizen of Trinidad and maintenance man at Harris' apartment complex, was arrested as a suspect but released because of a lack of physical evidence.
Later, at the behest of investigators who had tracked Mitchell to New York where he had moved with his family, then-District Attorney Bill Maddox and now a District Court judge, prepared an affidavit for a search warrant for blood and other samples from Mitchell, and the evidence was obtained.
The hitch, however, was that DNA testing was unavailable at the time, and when Maddox's successor, District Attorney Noel Waters charged Mitchell with the crime, the charges were dismissed, again for lack of evidence.
By the year 2000, genetic fingerprinting, as DNA testing is often referred to, was in common use, and Harris' clothing, still preserved by the Sheriff's Department, was tested for physical evidence. Bingo. Compared to the hair and bodily fluids obtained earlier from Mitchell, a match was made.
He was extradited from Trinidad, tried and convicted of the Harris crime.
"The physical evidence" in the case "was around for a long time," said Maddox, "so we must be preserving evidence" in Carson City. [Mark Godsey]
August 07, 2008
In lieu of DNA evidence, exoneration proves tougher
There was no DNA evidence to support Atkins' claims of innocence in a fatal Los Angeles carjacking. Instead, students at California Western School of Law pored over old police reports and searched for one critical witness whose false testimony had led to Atkins' 1987 conviction.
More than any other victory in the campaign to free the innocent, the work that secured Atkins' release symbolizes where the movement is heading, some of its key members say. Dogged investigative efforts such as this are likely to become more common, they say, as DNA is being used up in some of the oldest post-conviction cases, primarily because of uneven efforts by states to preserve it.
A shortage of DNA evidence would remove the most dramatic and clearest path to exoneration.
"This is very much an untold story," says Justin Brooks, executive director of the California Innocence Project, which engineered Atkins' release. "We're seeing very few DNA cases where testing is a possibility."
Of the project's pending investigations, 90% are non-DNA cases. Instead, other evidence, such as new witnesses, is needed to prove innocence. Nearly 10 years ago, half of its cases depended on DNA testing.
Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, fears Texas cases dependent on DNA could "run out" within a year. Of the 700 cases his group believes have potentially credible claims, 225 would be heavily weighted on the outcome of DNA analysis — if the material exists. The rest involve issues such as witness identification problems and coerced confessions.
Some advocates' concerns over the availability of DNA have injected tension into a movement to free the wrongfully convicted.
Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, a national group whose work relies almost exclusively on DNA testing, says enough cases exist to sustain a decade's worth of potential exonerations. His group says the DNA caseload has increased from 141 in 2004 to 278 this year.
"These cases are not slowing down," he says, adding his colleagues "are not looking hard enough." He says DNA cases will decline eventually — but not yet. [Mark Godsey]
July 21, 2008
How reliable is DNA in identifying suspects?
The men matched at nine of the 13 locations on chromosomes, or loci, commonly used to distinguish people. The FBI estimated the odds of unrelated people sharing those genetic markers to be as remote as 1 in 113 billion. But the mug shots of the two felons suggested that they were not related: One was black, the other white.
In the years after her 2001 discovery, Troyer found dozens of similar matches -- each seeming to defy impossible odds.
As word spread, these findings by a little-known lab worker raised questions about the accuracy of the FBI's DNA statistics and ignited a legal fight over whether the nation's genetic databases ought to be opened to wider scrutiny.
The FBI laboratory, which administers the national DNA database system, tried to stop distribution of Troyer's results and began an aggressive behind-the-scenes campaign to block similar searches elsewhere, even those ordered by courts, a Times investigation found.
At stake is the credibility of the compelling odds often cited in DNA cases, which can suggest an all but certain link between a suspect and a crime scene.
When DNA from such clues as blood or skin cells matches a suspect's genetic profile, it can seal his fate with a jury, even in the absence of other evidence. As questions arise about the reliability of ballistic, bite-mark and even fingerprint analysis, genetic evidence has emerged as the forensic gold standard, often portrayed in courtrooms as unassailable.
But DNA "matches" are not always what they appear to be. Although a person's genetic makeup is unique, his genetic profile -- just a tiny sliver of the full genome -- may not be. Siblings often share genetic markers at several locations, and even unrelated people can share some by coincidence.
No one knows precisely how rare DNA profiles are. The odds presented in court are the FBI's best estimates.
The Arizona search was, in effect, the first test of those estimates in a large state database, and the results were surprising, even to some experts.
Defense attorneys seized on the Arizona discoveries as evidence that genetic profiles match more often than the official statistics imply -- and are far from unique, as the FBI has sometimes suggested.
Lawyers seek searches
Now, lawyers around the country are asking for searches of their own state databases.
Several scientists and legal experts as well want to test the accuracy of official statistics using the nearly 6 million profiles in CODIS, the national system that includes most state and local databases.
"DNA is terrific and nobody doubts it, but because it is so powerful, any chinks in its armor ought to be made as salient and clear as possible so jurors will not be overwhelmed by the seeming certainty of it," said David Faigman, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, who specializes in scientific evidence.
FBI officials argue that, under their interpretation of federal law, use of CODIS is limited to criminal justice agencies. In their view, defense attorneys are allowed access to information about their specific cases, not the databases in general.
Bureau officials say critics have exaggerated or misunderstood the implications of Troyer's discoveries.
Indeed, experts generally agree that most -- but not all -- of the Arizona matches were to be expected statistically because of the unusual way Troyer searched for them. [Mark Godsey]
July 10, 2008
"Touch DNA" Analysis Clears Ramsey Family In JonBenet's Death
The Christmastime slaying triggered a global news media frenzy and a controversial investigation that long focused on the child's parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, and JonBenet's brother, Burke.
Boulder, Colo., District Attorney Mary Lacy said in a statement on Wednesday that DNA evidence recovered from the child's clothing pointed to an "unexplained third party." Lacy apologized to the family for the suspicions that made their lives "an ongoing living hell." [Mark Godsey]
July 08, 2008
Using DNA in smaller crimes could clog system
The story is straight out of Nancy Drew: A half-eaten corn dog found at the scene of a suburban office burglary yields DNA that links the crime to a man with 27 previous arrests. It's not fiction, though; it happened in Hennepin County, Minn., earlier this year.
New research shows that using DNA to solve property crimes like burglaries -- and not just violent crimes like homicides and sexual assaults -- is particularly effective. Last month, the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center released a study that found that DNA evidence from property crime scenes identifies suspects in twice as many cases and leads to twice as many arrests as more typical tools like witnesses and fingerprints.
But in the report, "The DNA Field Experiment," researchers also wrote that if collecting and processing DNA evidence at property crimes became the norm nationwide, it would overwhelm the criminal justice system.
"Most jurisdictions are having trouble processing special assaults and homicides," let alone burglaries, said John Roman, the study's principal author.
The latter finding is particularly relevant to local law enforcement officials. Because of limited forensic resources, the practice is working its way into police custom slowly.
"It's a new thing to this area," said Sgt. Kevin Gasiorowski, who heads the Pittsburgh police burglary squad.
He said it is unrealistic to expect Allegheny County's crime lab to handle the glut of evidence that would result from collecting DNA at all property crimes.
"We have 3,000 burglaries a year. They would be overrun," said Sgt. Gasiorowski. "It's not like on TV where you just get a swab of something and two minutes later it pops up on a computer."
Even excluding property crimes, competition for forensic resources is tough.
"You've got people saying you've got to look at old cases, you have the people who are investigating crimes, you have the people who are prosecuting crimes, and we're all taxing a system that has finite capacity," said John Rago, founding director of the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law at Duquesne University. [Mark Godsey]
June 27, 2008
Allow DNA tests to prove innocence and assure justice
WHEN AN INNOCENT person goes to prison, a guilty person roams our streets, free to victimize again.That is the practical reason we need to do all we reasonably can to make sure that the innocent aren’t convicted and that, if they are, those convictions are reversed and an investigation re-opened. The moral reason, of course, is that it’s wrong to imprison the innocent. We will never get those initial convictions correct 100 percent of the time, but there is a way we can improve our chance of identifying and correcting the errors. Our Legislature will have the opportunity to put it into place today.
A bill awaiting final approval by the House and Senate would add our state to the 44 others that allow people convicted of murder, rape and a handful of other violent crimes to have DNA testing done if they can convince a judge it would likely prove them innocent. That’s something that, in most cases, cannot happen today.
The testing wouldn’t be a new “right” for inmates; a judge would have to order it. And if the test confirmed a prisoner’s guilt, he would be subject to contempt of court, revocation of good-time credits and denial of parole requests. The legislation also requires that any new DNA samples be run through state and federal databases, to see whether the prisoner can be tied to unsolved crimes. That’s a strong disincentive for the guilty to tie up our courts seeking testing.
The bill also expands the state’s DNA database by requiring DNA samples be collected from everyone charged with a serious crime, rather than just those convicted. That makes sense, since DNA is the new fingerprint, but its inclusion worries some lawmakers who support the innocence testing, because Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed a similar bill last year.
Lawmakers would do well to find out whether Mr. Sanford will support this year’s expansion of the DNA database, and to strip it from the bill if he won’t. Better to get the more important law on the books than to see both of them defeated by a veto. [Mark Godsey]
June 22, 2008
Man cleared by DNA test seeks to clear record
DALLAS — The Innocence Project on Friday asked a Texas court to toss out the convictions that sent an innocent man to prison for 25 years and keeps him on probation today. DNA testing last year showed Steven Phillips was innocent of a 1982 sexual assault and burglary. In January, additional testing found that DNA evidence from the rape matched another man, Sidney Alvin Goodyear, who died in prison about a dozen years ago.
Phillips, who is on parole and lives in a halfway house as part of his probation, still has an extensive criminal record because he pleaded guilty to nine related sex crimes over fear that he would receive a life sentence if convicted, his lawyer said. Prosecutors now believe those sex crimes were also committed by Goodyear.
The Innocence Project said Friday there is a "wide range of clear evidence" showing that Phillips is innocent of all 11 crimes. Lawyers for the group, a New York-based legal center that tries to overturn wrongful convictions, argue that Goodyear committed all of the assaults and burglaries.
They also accuse Dallas police of improperly focusing on Phillips and ignoring evidence that pointed to Goodyear, originally a suspect before police targeted Phillips.
A hearing will likely be set by late July in state district court in Dallas in which two judges will decide whether Phillips' convictions should be vacated.
Innocence Project attorney Jason Kreag praised the Dallas County District Attorney's Office for its efforts to determine whether Phillips was guilty of the crimes that kept him in prison and now on parole.
"They have been remarkably cooperative and thorough in reinvestigating these crimes since we have identified Goodyear," Kreag said.
Mike Ware, who heads the Conviction Integrity Unit in the Dallas County DA's office, said his investigator has been challenged by the lack of DNA evidence in the other cases on Phillips' record.
"Obviously, it makes the task quite a bit more difficult," Ware said. "But it looks like there is certainly some corroboration on at least some of the cases, that even though there is no DNA, that Goodyear committed those offenses as well."
If a judge were to vacate Phillips' convictions, the effect would be more than just the symbolic clearing of his criminal record. Phillips remains on parole because of a 45-year sentence he received for pleading guilty to a sexual assault. That parole would end if his convictions are tossed. [ Mark Godsey]
Ronald Taylor says pardon brings new meaning to life
Ronald Gene Taylor on Thursday broke free of the bonds of the wrongful rape conviction that has defined his life for 15 years after receiving news of a pardon confirming his innocence."It's been hard to get restarted," Taylor said in a telephone interview from Atlanta. "Little things, like filling out a job application or renting an apartment are hard when you have to say you are a convicted felon. Now, I am officially a free man. I am so relieved."
Thursday, his lawyers learned Gov. Rick Perry had signed a pardon, fully clearing Taylor's name. Perry signed the pardon last Friday, but Taylor and his lawyers only received notice Thursday.
Taylor, 48, has worked to reclaim his life in the eight months since a Harris County judge ordered him released from prison after DNA evidence cleared him of a 1993 Houston rape. He moved to Atlanta in October and reunited with the woman who patiently had waited for him. In December, they married. This spring he started his own lawn care business.
But the shadow of his conviction darkened each of those milestones.
Taylor was accused in the 1993 attack of a woman in her Third Ward home, which sat less than a mile from where Taylor lived. He maintained his innocence, but prosecutors built a case on the victim's identification of Taylor and the now-discredited testimony of a Houston Police Department crime lab analyst.
Jurors at Taylor's 1995 trial found him guilty, and a judge sentenced him to 60 years in prison.
Taylor's family vowed to prove his innocence. At the behest of his stepfather, Herman Henderson, the Innocence Project, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to clear the wrongly convicted, accepted the case in 1998.
As the lawyers worked, a forensics scandal at the Houston Police Department crime lab grew, casting doubt on thousands of convictions. In 2006, a judge ordered DNA tests on evidence from Taylor's case. [Mark Godsey]
DNA Tosses Auburn Man's 1995 Murder Conviction
For the second time in less than 18 months, a Cayuga County murder conviction has been thrown out after DNA testing cast doubt on the trial verdict. Thursday, County Judge Thomas G. Leone tossed out Sammy Swift's 1995 conviction and ordered a new trial for the Auburn man. Last year, Roy Brown, who had served 15 years of a life sentence for murder, was freed from prison after DNA showed he wasn't at the scene of the crime.
Swift, now 54, was sentenced in 1995 to 20 years to life in state prison in the killing of Stephen DeLuca and 12 to 25 years for robbery. DeLuca was beaten and left unconscious in his 24 Underwood Ave. home in April 1994. He died five months later, and Swift was convicted of the killing in a jury trial.
Swift filed a motion earlier this year to vacate his conviction after new DNA tests more sophisticated than those available in 1995 showed that the blood found in DeLuca's home was not Swift's. The trial transcripts from 1995 contained repeated references to blood evidence, and testimony from a co-defendant said Swift wiped his bloody arm on a couch cushion.
Swift appeared before Leone in April, and the judge adjourned the case to give himself, prosecutors and the defense time to study the case file. The issue before Leone was whether he believed the
impact of the DNA testing would have changed the original verdict.
"There's a reasonable probability the verdict would be more favorable to the defendant," Leone said Thursday in announcing his ruling.
Cayuga County District Attorney Jon E. Budelmann said trial jurors heard testimony by co-defendants and other witnesses, and heard about other evidence in the case, such as DeLuca's wallet being found in Port Byron. Swift lived in Auburn and worked in Port Byron.
Budelmann told Leone he believes jurors would return the same verdict despite the DNA test and reminded the judge he must decide whether a different verdict was not simply possible but probable. [Mark Godsey]
June 18, 2008
DNA sample identifies attacker from 1985 rape case
DALLAS — A DNA sample that freed a wrongly convicted man who spent nearly 23 years behind bars implicated another man already in prison who has confessed to the crime, Dallas County prosecutors said Tuesday.DNA evidence collected after the 1985 rape of a Richardson woman matches convicted felon Kenneth Wayne Woodson, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office said. Thomas McGowan was originally convicted of the crime and served nearly 23 years in prison before being released in April."The truth is out there. There's no more doubt about anything," McGowan told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Woodson will not be charged because the five-year statute of limitations has expired, said Mike Ware, who heads the Conviction Integrity Unit in the DA's office.
Woodson was convicted in a separate case of aggravated sexual assault after a 1986 rape and burglary and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He served 20 years before being paroled in January 2006.
Fourteen months after being paroled, Woodson robbed a bank in Richardson, prosecutors said. His parole was revoked and he was sent back to prison to serve out the remaining 10 years on his original sentence, along with a concurrent 10-year sentence for the bank robbery.
The match to Woodson came by running the DNA evidence taken from the rape through a national database of DNA profiles of convicted sex offenders. Last Wednesday, a county investigator and a Richardson police officer traveled to a state prison in Brownfield to collect a cheek swab from Woodson.
Woodson confessed after learning that his DNA profile matched the DNA evidence taken from the sexual assault, prosecutors said. Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said his office has notified the Board of Pardons and Paroles "so that they can take this offense into consideration when making future parole decisions."[Mark Godsey]
June 17, 2008
State needs to preserve trial evidence
The defense said it wanted to do more extensive testing than that performed by the prosecution.
It couldn't. The blood evidence had already been discarded by doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina. It had been stored for about two years but was trashed because the medical school needed the storage space.
No one knows if the conviction of Wesley Smith in his homicide-by-child-abuse trial would have been affected had the tests been performed. No one knows if it would have proved the defense's contention that maybe Smith's 4-month-old baby's 17 fractured ribs resulted from a rare disease that causes brittle bones. MUSC said the baby likely didn't have the disease, but it didn't test for it.
No one knows if it would have made the prosecution's argument stronger. If the defense tests came back negative, that would have eliminated one of the defense's key assumptions, making things easier for the jury to maybe find Smith guilty of homicide by child abuse instead of having to settle for a last-minute aiding and abetting charge.
At least one juror said she needed more information, saying she didn't feel good about the process.
She was left with too many "ifs" and "maybes."
And part of the reason is that South Carolina has yet to pass a preservation of evidence law, something the Innocence Project says is vital to making our criminal justice system more just.
Such a law has been considered this legislative session but is lost somewhere in the abyss of a House committee in Columbia. It's part of a bill that would allow DNA samples to be taken from those arrested for certain crimes and tested to prove innocence or guilt.
But this isn't a sexy law, not like a "Jessica's Law," in which advocates rely on the emotional tug that comes with the murder of a child.
The public instantly sees the value in that. It's harder to get worked up over something as bland as preserving evidence. I didn't even realize my native state lacked such a law until I researched the details of my oldest brother's murder conviction. That evidence had been discarded.
But a lack of such a law in South Carolina is wrong on multiple levels. The state generally doesn't uphold a defendant's right to a speedy trial, which is why Smith remained in prison for four years before being convicted, which is why MUSC felt it was OK to throw away key evidence.
Why should we be proud of a justice system which relies on a process that isn't all that just? [Mark Godsey]
June 16, 2008
Cost-Effectiveness Analysis of the Use of DNA in the Investigation of High-Volume Crimes
The study compared traditional crime solving to biological evidence techniques in hundreds of cases where biological evidence was available. When conventional investigative techniques were used, a suspect was identified 12 percent of the time, compared to 31 percent of the cases using DNA evidence. In eight percent of cases built on traditional evidence alone a suspect was arrested, compared to the 16 percent arrest rate in DNA cases. The average added cost for processing a single case with DNA evidence was about $1,397. Each additional arrest—an arrest that would not have occurred without DNA processing—cost $14,169.
The study’s main findings are that:
- Property crime cases where DNA evidence is processed have more than twice as many suspects identified, twice as many suspects arrested, and more than twice as many cases accepted for prosecution compared with traditional investigation;
- DNA is at least five times as likely to result in a suspect identification compared with fingerprints;
- Suspects identified by DNA had at least twice as many prior felony arrests and convictions as those identified by traditional investigation;
- Blood evidence results in better case outcomes than other biological evidence, particularly evidence from items that were handled or touched;
- Biological material collected by forensic technicians is no more likely to result in a suspect being identified than biological material collected by patrol officers. [Mark Godsey]
May 25, 2008
Patrick Says State's Crime Laboratories Improving
Gov. Deval Patrick says the State Police Crime Lab and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner are both improving after some high-profile problems.Speaking Thursday to a meeting of state prosecutors, the governor said 18,000 DNA samples in cold storage have been sifted through and prioritized.
He also said DNA processing time has been cut in about half and the lab has entered more than 35,574 DNA profiles into the national offender database during the past year.
Patrick said the Medical Examiner's office has also improved, with the number of bodies in storage down to 25 from a high of 112 in a space that was designed for 75.
Medical examiner Dr. Mark Flomenbaum was fired and the office came under renewed scrutiny last year after the wrongful release and burial of a misidentified body. [Mark Godsey]
May 24, 2008
Huge gains reported at crime lab's DNA unit
MAYNARD - The M-48 sits on a countertop inside a clean room where masks and gloves are required wear. It is a large, rectangular machine that resembles a doughnut box with a see-through pane, and it is one of the Commonwealth's most important crime-fighting tools.The M-48 delicately extracts DNA. "It's as if DNA were in an egg yolk," said Kristen Sullivan, supervisor of the DNA Unit at the Massachusetts State Police crime lab. "And this machine breaks open the yolk to release it."The M-48 does in an hour what it would take dozens of technicians to do in weeks.
Soon, another M-48 will be operational at the lab, along with other automated stations that will relieve humans of the tedious and time-consuming jobs of DNA extraction, separation, and amplification.
Roundly criticized in recent years for inefficiency and mishandling of DNA and other evidence, some of it crucial to apprehending or prosecuting dangerous felons, the crime lab has managed to dramatically slash its backlog and turnaround time, Governor Deval Patrick said yesterday, addressing about 600 people at the Seaport Hotel in South Boston attending the 14th annual Massachusetts Prosecutors Conference.
John Grossman, the undersecretary of forensic science and technology, said the turnaround is the result of better management, more automation, and increased funding that has allowed the lab to hire 10 chemists since last year. There are currently 23, and as many as 10 more could be added by next year, Grossman said. The lab has a budget of $17 million, and Patrick is asking for an additional $2.2 million for fiscal 2009.
The lab has recently analyzed DNA evidence that law enforcement officials said was important to several cases, including that of Alex F. Scesny, 38, who is being held without bail after pleading not guilty to a charge stemming from the alleged rape of a girlfriend in a West Boylston motel last year. The Berlin resident has been declared a person of interest in the slayings of six women in Worcester and Middlesex counties.
"We have made significant progress in a short time, and I thank all levels of law enforcement and our prosecutors for their partnership in that effort," Patrick said. "We know that the work that takes place at those labs is a force multiplier."
According to statistics provided by State Police, processing a DNA case required an average of 91 days in late 2006. By the beginning of this year, the average time was 60 days.
In the last three months of 2006, 112 cases were completed. That figure soared to 330 in the first three months of 2008.
At the crime lab's drug unit, similar results were noted, with the average number of backlogged cases plummeting from 1,889 to 556, and the average processing time dropping from 93 days to 31 days. [Mark Godsey]
May 06, 2008
Ninth Circuit Affirms Grant of Habeas Based on DNA Expert's Exaggerated Claims
From latimes.com: "A Nevada man sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting a young girl should be freed or given a new trial because a prosecution expert exaggerated the strength of the DNA evidence against him, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday." You can read the rest of the article here and the Ninth Circuit's 2-1 decision here [Mike Mannheimer].
April 21, 2008
New (and somewhat Scary) Ways to use DNA
From washingtonpost.com: Twenty years after DNA fingerprints were first admitted by American courts as a way to link suspects to crime scenes, a new and very different class of genetic test is approaching the bench.
Rather than simply proving, for example, that the blood on a suspect's clothes does or does not match that of a murder victim, these "second generation" DNA tests seek to shed light on the biological traits and psychological states of the accused. In effect, they allow genes to "testify" in ways never before possible, in some cases resolving long-standing legal tangles but in others raising new ones.
Already, chemical companies facing "toxic tort" claims have persuaded courts to order DNA tests on the people suing them, part of an attempt to show that the plaintiffs' own genes made them sick -- not the companies' products.
In other cases, defense attorneys are asking judges to admit test results suggesting that their clients have a genetic predisposition for violent or impulsive behavior, adding a potential "DNA defense" to a legal system that until now has held virtually everyone accountable for their actions except the insane or mentally retarded.
Some gene tests are even being touted for their capacity to help judges predict the likelihood that a convict, if released, will break the law again -- a measure of "future dangerousness" that raises questions about how far courts can go to abort crimes that have not yet been committed.
Most of these tests are still research tools hovering on the margins of admissibility; only a few have made the leap from the lab bench to the courtroom. But scientists' expanding ability to query people's genes, and lawyers' efforts to introduce those findings as evidence, are forcing scholars and judges to think in new ways about the Constitution's protections against self-incrimination and unreasonable search and seizure.
At its extreme, the prospect of getting an accurate handle on future dangerousness challenges the very notions of autonomy and free will that are at the core of any theory of criminal responsibility.
"So far, judges have been cautious," said Karen Rothenberg, dean of the University of Maryland School of Law. But given what Rothenberg calls the "love affair" that courts have had with DNA fingerprints, she and others fear that judges and juries will fall too quickly for the new tests.
"As the cost of gene testing comes down . . . we're likely to see clever defense counselors taking steps to use the outer reaches of genetic testing," said Judge Andre M. Davis of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, speaking at a recent Baltimore roundtable co-sponsored by the law school and the National Human Genome Research Institute. "The question is, can the judge manage the case so the jury is not taken down the primrose path of genetic test results?" Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]