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DDC Forensics: Post-Conviction DNA Experts

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

DDC Forensics is in the news again! Dr. Julie Heinig, PhD, Asst. Laboratory Director in charge of Forensics, testified last week on behalf of the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF), presenting DNA testing results in the evidentiary hearing of Derrick Williams, a Palmetto, FL man who was convicted of kidnapping and rape in 1993. Dr. Heinig, a post-conviction DNA expert with extensive experience and success with degraded or otherwise difficult samples, isolated DNA from the shirt worn and abandoned by the true perpetrator 19 years ago. DNA results excluded Williams as a contributor to DNA found on the shirt, which made it “highly likely that [Williams] did not wear the shirt,” Dr. Heinig testified. The court agreed with the IPF’s contentions that newly discovered DNA evidence undermined confidence in the previous guilty verdicts, which were largely based on challenged eyewitness identification.

Manatee County Circuit Court Judge Marc B. Gilner signed an order that vacated Williams’ convictions and granted him a new trial. Now Derrick Williams waits to learn if the state will retry him, appeal the ruling, or simply exonerate him altogether.

Mr. Williams’ case represents DDC’s third collaborative effort in the last 2 years with the Innocence Project of Florida. In December 2009, James Bains of Lake Wales, FL was exonerated based on DNA evidence that DDC processed in his post-conviction case. Last month DDC provided DNA testing in the case involving Jimmy Ates of Baker, FL. DDC continues to provide DNA expertise to Innocence Projects across the country, and thus far has assisted with 6 confirmed guilty and 3 exoneration cases.

Ohio Passes Historic DNA Reform

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Earlier this month legislators in Ohio passed Senate Bill 77, a groundbreaking reform package that the Innocence Project calls a “National Model” for other states working on reforms to existing laws that govern lineup procedures, police interrogations, evidence preservation and methods for parolees to apply for DNA testing.

The Innocence Project, a national organization headquartered in New York City at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, worked closely with the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) for the last two years to help pass these critical reforms. Locally, lawyers and law students at the OIP worked diligently to research and draft the legislation that has now been signed into law by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. The impact of the law, which brings new protections for avoiding wrongful convictions and easier access to DNA testing to innocent prisoners, is summed up by the sponsor of the bill in the Ohio House, Rep. Tyrone Yates, D-Cincinnati. He declared, “This is one of the most important pieces of criminal justice legislation in this state in a century.”

A joint project between the Ohio Innocence Project and the Columbus Dispatch was integral to the reform’s momentum, and assured that the findings of the OIP research were well-documented. Dispatch reporters Mike Wagner and Geoff Dutton used their investigative reporting acumen to assist the OIP in researching case files, searching evidence facilities, and interviewing prisoners and victims alike in many of the nearly 300 applications for post-conviction DNA testing that the OIP received. The result was The Dispatch’s weeklong series, “Test of Convictions.” The articles outlined flaws in Ohio that could only be remedied by dramatic changes to law enforcement policies on evidence preservation, interrogations, suspect lineups and eyewitness photo identification, and access to post-conviction DNA testing. Mark Godsey, Director of the Ohio Innocence Project, provided the leadership and supervision to the group that built legislative support for the bill, including meeting with key legislators and providing information on the social science research and effectiveness of reforms in other states. DNA Diagnostics Center-Forensics provided pro bono DNA testing on many of the cases identified by the OIP as having legitimate claims of innocence, minimizing the state of Ohio’s cost for testing. Robert McClendon and Joseph Fears, both of Columbus, were exonerated as a result of the OIP/Dispatch joint project. McClendon and other Ohio exonerees served as a powerful spokespersons for the need for legislative reform.

The Senate Bill 77 changes to police practices are so comprehensive that Ohio has become a “model state” concerning reforms to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction. While states across the US are adopting some of these changes, none other than Ohio has implemented an omnibus bill of this magnitude.

Wrongly Convicted Man Set Free!

Friday, December 18th, 2009

DNA tests performed by DNA Diagnostic Center’s Forensic Division led to the exoneration of James Bain, who will be celebrating his first Christmas with his family after 35 years of incarceration. DDC Forensics was approached by the Florida Innocence Project to work on the case, for the laboratory’s expertise in analyzing DNA from aged DNA samples typical of post-conviction cases. Mr. Bain’s DNA was compared with the perpetrator’s biological material obtained from the crime scene, and the analysis showed no match between his DNA profile and the evidence.

Of the 246 DNA exonerees to date, Bain has served the longest prison term as an innocent man. Dr. Ellen Moscovitz, President and CEO of DNA Diagnostics Center stated, ““This is a very profound moment for all of us at DNA Diagnostics Center. It underscores the importance and impact of the DNA testing we provide every day and reminds us that there is a precious human life attached to every specimen. We are so pleased to have been able to play a part in achieving justice and freedom for Mr. Bain.”

DDC’s Forensics Division serves as an independent DNA testing resource to defense lawyers and government prosecutors and works with many Innocence Projects across the country. Seth Miller, Director of the Innocence Project of Florida, commented, “We’ve worked with DNA Diagnostics Center on a number of cases now for over a year. Not only do their analysts do diligent work, but their customer service is top notch. There’s no other lab that we would have wanted to put this case in the hands of, especially with the age of the case and the type of sample that we had. We knew that DDC would take great care with it. We’re so thankful to DDC that they were able to help us find the truth and help with the release of Jamie Bain.”

Ohio’s Proposed DNA Law Changes

Friday, December 18th, 2009

This past June, Ohio Senator David Goodman, R-New Albany, sponsored Ohio Senate Bill 77 which proposed changes to laws governing retention of DNA evidence and procedures for suspect lineups. The bill passed the Senate by a 32-1 vote, and now the House is close to passing the bill, after nearly a dozen amendments were adopted by the House Criminal Justice Committee.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, opposition to the bill comes from law-enforcement groups and prosecutors who are concerned about the bill’s requirements and the costs to implement them. Specifically, the legislation would require law enforcement to retain biological evidence for up to 30 years in cases of murder and sexual assault. Suspect lineups would now be blind: the officer conducting the lineup would not know the identity of the true suspect, or the officer would conduct a photo-lineup so that only the witness can see the pictures. Other changes to the law would make DNA testing open to parolees and require anyone charged with a felony to submit a DNA sample.

John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, felt the amendments to the bill made “vast improvements.” A key change was giving law-enforcement agencies the ability to discard biological evidence after 5 years if a defendant pleads guilty or no contest.

“This is about not just being tough on crime, but being smart on crime,” said Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project. “These are recognized as best practices around the country, and Ohio hasn’t been doing them, by and large.”

If the bill passes after next week’s vote, Ohio residents can look forward to improved practices that should help assure justice.

Update: NY “near matches”

Monday, December 14th, 2009

Last week the New York State Commission on Forensic Science, which includes 12 representatives from law enforcement, criminal defense, the judiciary the NY State Dept of Health and forensic laboratories, approved modifications to DNA regulations to allow disclosure of “near matches” that are observed in NY’s databank searches. Under current regulations, when crime scene evidence is tested and a DNA sample is a close partial match to an individual’s profile in the database, the scientists are not permitted to report an inadvertent near hit that is observed.

Deputy Secretary for Public Safety Denise E. O’Donnell chairs the Commission of Forensic Science and stated, “The Commission has taken an important step to address the serious and valid concerns expressed by forensic scientists, who feared that they are currently placed in an untenable ethical bind: right now they have no authority to share information, discovered inadvertently, that may provide vital evidence in a criminal investigation. That is entirely unreasonable, and contrary to the concept of public interest, to ask our laboratories to withhold information that they know may be the key to stopping a serial rapist or murderer, or exonerating an innocent individual.”

While the proposed amendment is similar to statutes in California and Colorado which allows “familial searching,” or singling out particular families, NY’s regulation will only address the rare case where a routine search of the DNA database results in a near hit, which when used in as an investigative tool, could greatly limit the collection of potential suspects.

With a close eye on constitutional safeguards and accepted scientific procedures, the NY DNA Subcommittee must still review the implementation plan and submit final recommendations to the full Commission. The Governor’s Office of Regulatory Reform will make its publication and public comment. If adopted, the new regulations will assure that partial-match cases reviewed by the scientists on the DNA subcommittee adhere to the new standards.

New York currently collects DNA samples from only about 46% of people convicted of crimes. Governor Paterson has proposed an all-crimes DNA bill that would require anyone convicted of a penal law crime to provide a DNA sample.

Strengthening Forensic Science: An Update

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Strengthening Forensic Science: An Update
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee reacted to the National Academies of Sciences report released earlier this year with a Committee Hearing focusing on ways to address the problems in crime labs such as inadequate resources and support, fragmented regulations of the labs and practicioners, and the lack of strong scientific research. In this report, DNA typing analytical methods were presented as scientifically validated before even being used for criminal investigation.

The Chairman of the Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), opened the hearing by acknowledging the importance of the scientific advancements developed through forensics, including the ability to demonstrate criminal guilt or exonerate those who are innocent of crimes. “We need to do all we can to ensure that forensic science rises to the highest scientific standards and has the maximum possible reliability,” Senator Leahy said.

The Senator demonstrated the current severity of the problems in the field by referring to the Cameron Todd Willingham case—a Texas man put to death in 2004 based on forensic evidence and interpretation of alleged arson indicators that have since been found to be without merit. Leahy also referenced the recent Supreme Court decision of Melendez-Diaz vs. MA, which found that forensic analysts must be subject to cross-examination in court, instead of just submitting the reports as evidence. The suggestion is that cross-examination of the forensic examiners may bring to light any practices that do not meet strict standards.

Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) explained that many flaws in forensic science have been exposed by DNA testing, the gold standard of forensic tests. Feingold further stated that despite the defects in other scientific disciplines, jurors still place unwarranted trust in forensic evidence in the courtroom, even when not reliable. This phenomenon is often referred to as the “CSI effect,” based on the television series whose characters solve crimes in less than an hour with science presented as infallible.

While the Senate Judiciary Committee works to investigate the recommendations of the NAS report and determine next steps, the members agreed that at the least, standardization of methods, protocols and reporting should be made a national priority.

Forensics Resource Feature: Museum of Crime & Punishment

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

The National Museum on Crime and Punishment located in Washington, DC, offers visitors a memorable insight into the historical and current issues of crime and its consequences, all in an interactive and entertaining venue. The museum’s homepage claims, “It’s so much fun, it’s a crime”—speaks to its focus on engaging visitors.

The museum’s five galleries include over 100 interactive exhibits and occupy 25,000 square feet on 3 floors. The galleries include: History of Crime; Punishment—A Consequence to Crime; Crime Fighting; CSI Experience; and America’s Most Wanted. Good Morning America described the museum as a “a must see for CSI fans.”

Regularly scheduled events include CSI Lab Workshops and Book Clubs. Filming for the television series, “America’s Most Wanted” takes place in the studio within the museum. Visitors can try to crack a safe, hack into a computer, or visit a full-scale model police station complete with jail cell and lethal injection chamber. If it’s an adrenalin rush a visitor seeks, they need only go to the high-speed police chase stimulators and an FBI shooting range. The museum’s Crime Library has even greater resources into specific topics such as Artifacts, Criminal Law, Terrorism, Forensics/Investigations, Murder, Justice System, Imprisonment, Execution, Organized Crime, Hate Crimes, and War Crimes. To learn more, visit their Forensic Blog.

Good News for DNA Backlog in LA

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

The crisis of the growing backlog of DNA evidence and convicted offender samples in crime labs is nothing new, and most of the news reported on this issue is bleak. But there is some good news in Los Angeles: a federal grant will help the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department resume its efforts to reduce its backlog that includes evidence from thousands of rape and sexual assault cases.

According to Sheriff Lee Baca, lack of funding caused his department to suspend work on reducing the backlog of evidence dating back to the late 1990s. The Associated Press reports that California State University will receive $1 million to help the sheriff’s office and LA Police Department process the cases. The grant will fund a program that will help identify up to 250 cases for outsourcing to forensic DNA testing to private labs, pay for courses in advanced forensic training, and allow graduate students to provide administrative support to the agencies.

“Grandfather of DNA” Receives Award

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

On the 25th anniversary of the 1984 breakthrough discovery of the secret of DNA fingerprinting, the UK’s University of Leicester bestowed upon its own Sir Alec Jeffreys the Distinguished Honorary Fellowship award in recognition of his scientific achievement as a DNA pioneer. Often named the “Grandfather of DNA” for his groundbreaking efforts in human genetics, Jeffreys’ work combined molecular biology and genetics to study variation in human DNA, particularly at highly variable repeat DNA sequences. This culminated in his accidental development of DNA fingerprinting in 1984 and demonstration that it could be used to resolve issues of identification and kinship.

Jeffreys received the award for his great discovery with humility. He said: “I would like to pay credit to Professor Bob Pritchard. I remember clearly when I came here that he made it clear that I had freedom to follow my scientific nose. Only by doing that, now we’ve stumbled upon this.” He continued to explain that discovering DNA fingerprinting began quite by accident as he researched human genetic variations in the realm of medical genetics, nothing to do whatsoever with forensics or human identification. He further stated, “Science is fundamentally unpredictable and you have to maintain a very vibrant attitude. Fundamentally science is the engine that ultimately drives all technological innovation.” Professor Jeffreys currently holds the position of Royal Society Wolfson Research Professor at Leicester. His work in 1984 was significant in bringing DNA technology to use in practical casework, such as forensic investigation and paternity testing. Today, DNA technology that is based on the discoveries made by Sir Alec Jeffreys and others helps answer questions of human identity and family relationship across the world.

For more information about Sir Alec Jeffreys, visit The Royal Society site:

Supreme Court Ruling on Forensic Evidence

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Last week the US Supreme Court ruled a defendant has a constitutional right to challenge the forensic evidence against them and cross-examine the analysts who prepared the evidence as witnesses for the prosecution. The ruling, decided in a 5-4 vote, reversed the conviction in the Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts case, a case involving the sale of cocaine. The high court rationalized its reversal on the basis of the defendant’s right to confront his accuser was violated.

This news comes after recent publications, such as the National Academy of Sciences report, that exposed a wide variability across forensic disciplines in terms of standards, methodologies and protocols that allow for potential errors. The lone exception to their findings was DNA testing and analysis, whose principles and practices have been validated extensively in order to achieve its position as the gold standard in forensic science. In fact, at least 240 incarcerated individuals have been exonerated based on the DNA evidence that, in many cases, invalidated the results from faulty tests such as analysis of hair, bullet casing, tool and bite marks, fingerprinting and handwriting.

Of concern to many dissenters of the ruling is the potential burden of preparation and analysis of criminal evidence. Current law allows the introduction of evidence without testimony of the analyst who produced the forensic report. Supporters insist that cross-examination of witnesses will help weed out not only the fraudulent analyst, but the incompetent one as well.

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