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Archive for June, 2009

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.

Unlikely DNA Evidence

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

Crime scene evidence is often key to identifying perpetrators, and DNA technology has broadened the scope of items that might reveal the wrongdoer. Blood or semen stains, sweat or skin cells on clothing, or saliva left on cigarette butts, bottles or drinking glasses left behind at the crime scene are the common types of evidence that usually help nab the criminal.

In California, a man accused of robbing a bank was identified by DNA from an unlikely source: a fake eyebrow. While Mr. Armando Navarette of Salinas, California, age 22, and an unknown accomplice did escape the bank with $40,000, he was found guilty on 2 counts of armed robbery and one count of burglary. The fake eyebrow, used as part of his disguise, had fallen off as he made his escape. His attorney has requested a new trial.

Marco Scarpetta, PhD, Joins DDC Forensics Staff

Friday, June 12th, 2009

DNA Diagnostics Center (DDC) has appointed Marco Scarpetta, PhD, as Laboratory Director. Dr. Scarpetta brings more than 15 years of experience and leadership in the forensic and paternity DNA testing fields.

Dr. Scarpetta previously held the position of Laboratory Director at Orchid Cellmark. The new appointment was made by Dr. Ellen Moscovitz, President and CEO of DDC, who stated, “We couldn’t be more pleased by the addition of Dr. Scarpetta to our already-leading team of laboratory professionals internationally recognized for their expertise and dedication to the field of DNA testing.”

Dr. Scarpetta joins the DDC team of PhD scientists led by Dr. Michael Baird, Associate Vice President and Laboratory Director. Dr. Baird stated, “With the addition of Dr. Scarpetta, DDC will continue in its position as the leading provider of private DNA testing services while upholding the highest level of quality and service available in the industry today.” Dr. Baird is the current Chairman of the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) Relationship Testing Accreditation Program.

DNA Near Matches in NY

Friday, June 12th, 2009

According to the Associated Press, the New York State Commission on Forensic Sciences recently voted to allow forensic scientists to inform New York police departments when DNA collected at a crime scene is a near match to a convicted criminal in the state database. This is being termed by authorities as an “investigative lead” rather than a “DNA hit.” Denise O’Donnell, the commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services reports that partial matches, which indicate that the perpetrator is likely a relative of the near match in the database, are infrequent, but could serve to point to the actual criminal.

Current New York regulations require that any DNA evidence collected from a crime, such as a rape or homicide, must match the database exactly. New York’s database contains nearly 341,000 DNA profiles of offenders. Because the proposed regulation is subject to public comment, the process to finalize the change may take months to implement. Opponents to the law change, such as the New York Civil Liberties Union, consider the proposed policy a “miscarriage of justice” that threatens privacy and due process rights. However, the potential to solve crime has driven support for the change. In fact, in North Carolina, Darryl Hunt spent 19 years in prison, wrongfully convicted of a rape and murder. When a DNA databank search partially matched a convicted felon, that inmate’s brother later confessed to the crime for which Mr. Hunt served time.

In addition to the dispute over individual rights, this issue presents an ethical dilemma for some crime lab scientists who identify these DNA near matches. If their state requires perfect matches, and they think an inmate’s relative is almost certainly a match to evidence, they may feel compelled to report the possible lead. But, is the effort to solve the crime worth the cost of implicating someone in a criminal investigation only because their DNA is a near match to the perpetrator? The debate continues…



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