[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----TEXAS, WASH.
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Thu Jul 22 16:59:03 CDT 2004
Schizophrenic's lawyers will get to fight execution
Lawyers for schizophrenic murderer Scott Panetti will get a chance to
argue in federal court that their client's mental illness makes him
incompetent to be executed.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks on Wednesday denied the state's motion to
dismiss Panetti's claim of incompetency. Sparks authorized funds for
experts and investigators, and set an Aug. 23 hearing.
Last February, Sparks halted Panetti's execution one day before Panetti
was to be put to death for the 1992 murders of his estranged wife's
parents. The execution stay allowed Panetti's lawyers to ask the state
trial court to determine whether he understands that he is to be executed
A psychiatrist and psychologist appointed by state District Judge Stephen
Ables of Gillespie County determined that Panetti is competent after they
jointly interviewed him for an hour. They described Panetti as
uncooperative and interested only in "filibustering about the Bible and
But the 2 concluded that Panetti "deliberately and persistently chose to
control and manipulate our interview situation by deflecting the interview
into religious topics." They said although Panetti "chooses not to discuss
the reason that he is to be executed, he has the ability to understand."
San Antonio lawyer Michael Gross said he will use the investigative
authority Sparks allowed to have different mental health experts meet with
Panetti. He said he also plans to interview inmates and nearby cells and
prison workers familiar with Panetti.
Panetti has a long history of mental illness and represented himself
wearing a purple cowboy costume during a circus-like 1995 trial in
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Experts Profile Christina Chavez
"It could involve the state seeking the death penalty. Do you understand
that, young ladies?"
Those were the strong words from Judge Jack Hunter for to the 2 women
accused of murdering Times Market clerk Pablo Castro.
Both 20-year-old Christina Chavez and 30-year-old Angela Rodriguez sat
quietly as they were formally charged with capital murder.
Neither one made any comments for reporters.
Each is being held on a million dollar bond. They're also charged with
So what would drive 2 women to attack a man they didn't know for barely
The family of Christina Chavez say they are as shocked as everyone else to
hear that Christina was involved in this horrible murder. Her cousin says
it is completely out of her character.
The city has heard of 20-year-old Chavez as a senseless accused killer of
Pablo Castro but to her family she is a good person. So good her cousin
she grew up with thinks of her as a sister.
Her cousin says, "She's always been a real nice person to talk to."
Christina grew up with her aunt and cousins and attended Roy Miller High
School. She dropped out in ninth grade. Christina gave birth to 5 kids.
Sadly, one died 4 years ago.
Christina estranged herself from the family and started a relationship
with Angela Rodriguez and her friends.
Dr. Carlos Estrada, an expert in criminal behavior, says that it is
typical for someone who is alienated from their family to cling on to a
Christina's cousin has one message for the family of Pablo Castro.
"My heart goes out to the family. She did a horrible thing," she says.
Chavez has had a rough life but her cousin does not want that to be used
as excuse for her behavior, she says she wants justice to be served.
(source: KZTV News)
Cold Case Solved after 18 Years
Police say an 18-year-old murder case was solved Wednesday after DNA
evidence points to a possible killer.
Cynthia Salazar's body was found naked, dumped in the Medina River and
Applewhite Road in 1986. Investigators say she was raped and strangled.
After re-visiting the case, and taking DNA samples from several suspects,
Bexar County's cold case squad says Julian Lasser is Salazar's killer.
They found the match after running DNA tests through the prison system.
Lasser is currently serving time for another crime also involving sexual
assault. He was about to be released from prison in 3 days.
Lasser faces the death penalty if convicted since he is accused of 2
crimes, raping and murdering Salazar.
(source: VOAI News)
Autopsies by former examiner reviewed----Several cases got a second look
after questions about neutrality
A former Harris County associate medical examiner accused of botching an
autopsy that led to a young mother's imprisonment has come under scrutiny
in several other cases in which her conclusions were later contested or
The work of Dr. Patricia Moore, who now performs autopsies in Montgomery
County, is the focus of renewed debate since officials recently
reclassified one of her 1999 autopsies from "homicide" to "undetermined."
The cause of 2-month-old Daniel Lemons' death is at the center of an
appeal by his mother, Brandy Briggs, who is serving a 17-year prison
sentence and has asked a judge to recommend her release.
A Houston Chronicle review of county records reveals at least 2 other
cases in which Moore's supervisors revised her findings in autopsies on
children. She was admonished once for appearing to show a bias in favor of
prosecutors, and criticized for "not understanding the objectives of
neutral medical-legal investigation."
In a sworn affidavit last week, Moore acknowledged concerns about her
autopsy report in the Lemons case.
"I still believe that my initial opinion as to the cause of death and the
manner of death of this 2-month-old boy are most likely correct," she
wrote. "But since there have been other views on this matter ... I feel
that another opinion from an outside expert would be of utmost
Her finding of "shaken baby syndrome" reinforced the case against Briggs,
who pleaded guilty to child endangerment in 2000.
But the county's chief medical examiner, Dr. Luis Sanchez, testified July
9 that there is no evidence of shaken baby syndrome. He recently changed
the official manner of death.
Briggs' attorney, Charlie Portz, has asked state District Judge Mary Lou
Keel to recommend reversing the conviction, saying there is no longer
evidence that the death resulted from a crime. Keel has not made a ruling.
Doesn't add up
During her time in Harris County, Moore attributed infant deaths to shaken
baby syndrome at a rate considerably higher than the rate at which it
happens in the general population, according to a study by a doctor and
defense attorney who worked on a case involving one of her autopsies.
"She may be biased toward the district attorneys instead of playing it
straight," said Portz. "And that means the defense doesn't have an even
Moore has declined to comment to the Chronicle since Sanchez's testimony.
She resigned her Harris County job in July 2002, citing a need to spend
more time with her child.
In nearly 6 years with that office, Moore was widely respected by the
legal and law enforcement communities. Records show she conducted up to
500 autopsies a year and had special expertise in pediatric pathology.
Moore received a doctorate in osteopathic medicine from Southeastern
University of the Health Sciences in Miami. She currently works in Conroe
for the Southeast Texas Forensic Center, which contracts with Montgomery
County to provide autopsy services.
Sanchez, who became chief medical examiner after Moore left her Harris
County post, said he has little reason to doubt her competence and could
not recall any instance other than the Lemons case in which her findings
But a claim similar to Briggs' was made by another woman earlier this
year, after the medical examiner's office changed the cause of death of
7-month-old Trevor Seber from "homicide" to "undetermined."
In October 2002, prosecutors charged the infant's mother, Ruth Ann
Gilliam, 22, of Pasadena with reckless injury to a child, punishable by up
to 20 years in prison.
"I was thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, I've lost my son and now they are charging
me with my son's death?' All I ever did was love my kids," Gilliam said
She spent 9 months in jail before posting bail. During that time, her
parental rights were terminated and her other child was adopted.
In preparation for trial, another medical examiner, Dr. Dwayne Wolf,
reviewed Moore's autopsy and disagreed with her homicide ruling. Sanchez
concurred and the ruling was changed, county records show.
Prosecutors then offered to let Gilliam plead guilty to a lesser charge
and receive a sentence of time served, meaning she would not go back to
jail. She refused.
"I guess they wanted their little plea or whatever," she said. "But I told
my lawyer, 'Absolutely not. I'm not pleading to something I didn't do. I'm
fighting my case all the way.' And then the DA backed out."
The case was dismissed in March.
"That's not to say we don't believe a crime was committed," said Assistant
District Attorney Charles Thompson. "It just becomes more difficult to
Gilliam's attorney, Ernest "Bo" Hopmann, contends that Moore tried to
match her findings to law enforcement investigations.
"I think that once a detective on the scene or some other law enforcement
officer made the original analysis that a possible crime had been
committed, then she did her work from that standpoint and tried to
substantiate those allegations with medical conclusions," Hopmann said.
While working in Harris County, Moore had a contentious relationship with
then-Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Joye Carter. In employee reviews in 1999
and 2000, Carter cited Moore for "defective and improper work."
Moore was criticized for handing in paperwork contaminated with blood and
making written requests for X-rays on paper towels. One employee review
calls her "headstrong."
Carter reprimanded Moore in 1999, saying she seemed biased in favor of the
"Dr. Carter reminded Dr. Moore that our office is neutral and that we are
not doing cases for the DA's office. We need to be open to both the
prosecution and the defense," states a July 19, 1999, memo by Alex
Conforti, the chief administrative officer at the medical examiner's
The remark stems from the death of 10-month-old Christina Dew. Doctors
suspected shaken baby syndrome, but the precise time of the fatal injuries
That left prosecutors unsure whether to pursue charges against the mother
or the baby sitter, who said she found the child semiconscious shortly
after the mother left for work.
Moore's initial report indicated that the baby must have become
unconscious right after the injury, a finding that would point to the baby
sitter as a suspect.
But after police said the mother had failed a lie-detector test that the
baby sitter had passed, authorities focused on the mother, county records
Shortly afterward, Moore met with a prosecutor and other doctors. The
autopsy report was then changed.
After learning of this, Carter confronted Moore.
"You stated your opinion of who the guilty party was. I responded to you
at that point to say you were overstepping your boundaries," she later
told Moore in a memo. "We as medical examiners should not opine as to who
did what, if we are to remain neutral."
Carter followed up with a note in the case file.
"It remains impossible to gauge a 30 minute time frame as to precisely
when the fatal injuries occurred to this young and unfortunate victim,"
Carter wrote. "So as not to impede the legal process, the new version is
now signed after careful review. The prosecutor was reprimanded as to the
serious risk of collusion when changes are made to a public document."
The baby sitter, Trenda Kemmerer, was tried in 2000 on a charge of injury
to a child.
The jury deadlocked, but in 2001, Kemmerer was convicted and sentenced to
55 years in prison.
Assistant District Attorney Kelly Siegler, who prosecuted Kemmerer's
second trial, said autopsies usually are contested in this type of case
because defense attorneys often claim the child died of natural causes.
"It's always the main thing in a shaken baby case," she said.
Siegler said she had no concerns about Moore's work.
Questions about Moore's autopsy on a Fort Bend County child led
prosecutors there to drop capital murder charges and give a man probation
on a lesser charge.
Frank Chavez was accused of killing his 2-year-old stepdaughter, Hallie
Lohner, after Moore concluded the child was beaten to death in 2000.
The Harris County medical examiner's office was providing autopsy services
to Fort Bend County at the time.
After Moore testified about the autopsy at a civil court hearing on
custody of another child, prosecutors decided to have an expert review the
case before taking Chavez to trial in criminal court.
That expert suggested the death had resulted not from blunt force, but
from illness. Prosecutors later had the capital murder charge dismissed.
The case ended in 2003 when Chavez agreed to plead guilty to failure to
seek medical attention. He faced up to 10 years in prison, but got
A statistical examination of Moore's work suggests a trend of finding
shaken baby syndrome as a cause of death, said Dr. Jim Bromberg, a
physician and defense attorney who worked on a shaken-baby case in which
Moore performed an autopsy.
Based on numbers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
Bromberg estimated that Houston's metropolitan area should see one or two
fatal cases of shaken baby syndrome each year.
Moore, however, cited it as a cause of 7 deaths in one 18-month period.
"The numbers suggest one should look into whether this is being
overdiagnosed," Bromberg said.
District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said he has worked with Moore on many
cases and sees no reason to question her work.
"She acted pretty middle-of-the-road," Rosenthal said. "I thought she did
them pretty much as she saw them. She didn't come across as a biased state
witness on any of the trials I had."
Child fatalities that raise suspicions of abuse or neglect have received
more scrutiny in recent years, said Assistant District Attorney Denise
Oncken, longtime head of the district attorney's child-abuse division.
"Years and years ago, people felt so bad when somebody's kid died that
nobody wanted to look for any foul play," Oncken said.
But Bromberg said the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite
"This is a politically sensitive area of medicine. They all want to
protect children, but they are using incomplete science," he said.
"I don't think there is malice. I don't think there is collusion. But I do
think there were scientific errors that have created legal errors."
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Francois case goes to the jury
Jurors are deliberating the guilt or innocence of Anthony Francois who is
accused of killing three little girls during a jealous rampage.
Francois is on trial for one count of capital murder for the deaths of the
two youngest sisters and could get the death penalty if convicted.
The accused killer's taped confession was played in court on Wednesday.
For the first time during the trial, jurors heard the defendant talk about
what happened the day he allegedly shot his girlfriend and her family.
Patterson's three younger sisters, Nikesha, 15, Ashely, 11, and Brittany,
10, were killed. Shemeka and her mother were also shot but both survived.
In a videotaped confession, 36-year-old Anthony Francois talked about his
relationship with 16-year-old Shemeka Patterson.
"It wouldn't be a lie to say I felt like that if I couldn't have her,
nobody could. I don't know what made me do something to the whole family,"
he said in the confession.
Francois told homicide detective Brian Harris how he struggled with the
thought of killing his former girlfriend's family.
"Something say 'do it', something say 'don't do it', over and over in my
mind. Her momma came in the room, and I don't know, I just snapped. I was
just losing control. It just happened so fast," Francois continued on the
He also expressed sorrow for the shootings. "I have remorse about her
sisters. It was nothing between her family and me. I couldn't see nothing
but Shemeka. She was saying a bunch of to irritate me. The bottom line is
she didn't want to be with me no more," he said.
After seeing the confession, the victims' grandmother also expressed
sorrow for Francois.
"I really do. I feel sorry for him. Because it looked like he really did
love Shemeka, and I don't know what went wrong between them, but like I
said, I never did know him just personal. But I got sympathy for people .
I felt real sorry for him, and I hate that he did what he did do, but I
can't take nothing back from what he done did, I lost a great bit, too,"
said Dorothy Patterson.
The prosecution rested Wednesday afternoon, and afterwards, the defense
recalled Shemeka Patterson back to the stand.
Both sides rested Thursday morning and jurors began deliberating. If they
find Francois guilty of capital murder, they must then decide whether to
send him to prison for life or to the death chamber.
(source: KHOU News)
Slashing suspect is still hunted ---- 2 women held in the same case get
While police searched for a suspect in the throat-slash slaying of a
convenience store clerk, 2 women arrested in connection with the same
crime appeared in court Wednesday.
Christina Chavez, 23, and Angela Cruz Rodriguez, 30, arrived at Judge Jack
Hunter's 94th District Court so the judge could make sure they understood
their rights and to appoint their lawyers.
Standing in front of the judge's bench in white jail uniforms, oversize
sandals and leg shackles, Chavez and Rodriguez said they understood their
rights to attorneys and their rights to remain silent. The judge also
upheld their $1 million bonds.
The women had said before the hearing they would make a statement to the
media, but they opted out before going back to jail. With lights and a
television camera in their faces, the women ignored questions about the
killing of Pablo Castro, who was found with his throat slashed and with
stab wounds in the parking lot of Times Market, 1902 Baldwin Blvd., at
11:20 p.m. Monday.
Castro's family is planning a rosary 7 p.m. today at the Corpus Christi
Funeral Home, according to KRIS 6 News.
Rodriguez will be represented by attorneys Richard Rogers and David
Reddell, and Chavez will be represented by James Granberry and Pat
Granberry said it is "way, way too early" to make any comments about the
case. He noted there have been no indictments, and he had not even seen
the police reports. First Assistant District Attorney Mark Skurka said the
state could pursue capital murder, aggravated robbery and theft charges.
Capital murder convictions can result in the death penalty.
"We're waiting for cops to finish their investigation before we make the
final charging decision," Skurka said. "I have no idea who did what."
He also said he does not know when the grand jury will hear the cases.
Police still are looking for John Henry Ramirez in connection with the
killing. He could face the same charges, prosecutors said. They're asking
for the public's help in apprehending Ramirez. Anyone with information can
call Crime Stoppers at 888-TIPS.
"We'll examine the role each played," Skurka said. "They're all potential
Police Cmdr. Mike Walsh said officers are following up on possible
sightings of Ramirez and other tips on his whereabouts.
"There is a lot of activity going on," Walsh said. "The chief has directed
that every spare minute for every officer has to be spend searching for
(source: Corpus Christi Caller-Times)
2 men indicted in slaying at gas station
A Dallas County grand jury Wednesday indicted two men in the slaying last
month of a construction worker who was shot to death while pumping gas at
a west-side service station.
The suspects -- Roberto Trevino, 22, and Adrian Rodriguez, both of Dallas
-- were being held Wednesday at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center, both
charged with capital murder.
They are accused in the June 11 slaying of Fidel Ramirez, 35, of Dallas,
who was fatally shot while refueling a vehicle at the Exxon station in the
1600 block of Inwood Road.
A witness who was in the passenger seat of Ramirez's car told police that
Ramirez was approached by a man who was refueling a different car nearby.
The man displayed a semiautomatic handgun and demanded money.
The construction worker surrendered his wallet, but when the suspect saw
there was no cash in it, he became angry and fired a shot into Ramirez's
left shoulder, according to police reports.
The gunman fled with another suspect who drove the getaway car. The
vehicle also contained two other people, but police did not consider them
suspects in the shooting.
Ramirez was transported to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where he died.
Meanwhile, police obtained a surveillance video from the convenience store
at the Exxon station, which showed images of the suspects before the
shooting. Officers released the tape to the media, which resulted in
numerous tips about the suspects.
The 2 men were subsequently arrested; Trevino on June 14 and Rodriguez on
Rodriguez's bail is set at $1 million, and bail for Trevino is $500,000.
Trevino is also being held on a separate charge of discharging a firearm
in the city, with bail set at $25,000.
Court records do not indicate any other cases involving Rodriguez.
Trevino, however, was convicted in 1998 of possessing more than five
pounds of marijuana.
(source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
Rare look inside state crime labs reveals recurring DNA test problems
For the detective working the case, it looked like a sure thing. The
58-year-old suspect had confessed to raping his young niece. He had a
prior sex-crime conviction.
DNA evidence extracted from the 10-year-old girl's underwear would be the
Charged with child rape, the road-crew worker from the South King County
town of Pacific faced up to 26 years in prison -- until authorities
learned of startling test results coming out of the Washington State
Patrol's Tacoma crime lab.
The genetic evidence excluded the victim's uncle and pointed to an unknown
man. The airtight case suddenly had a gaping hole.
Four months later, on Jan. 8, 2002, prosecutors offered a deal. The
defendant pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of child molestation, shaving
a decade off his sentence.
A couple of weeks after that, the lab made an embarrassing discovery. <>
The mystery man was a mistake.
Forensic scientist Mike Dornan had bungled the test, accidentally
contaminating the child's clothing with DNA from another case he'd been
DNA contamination and errors at the State Patrol crime labs are recurring
problems, an investigation by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has found.
Forensic scientists contaminated tests or made other mistakes while
handling DNA evidence in at least 23 cases involving major crimes over the
last three years, according to State Patrol and court records.
The list of DNA testing errors, uncovered through public-records requests
and interviews with defense attorneys and experts, offers an unusual
glimpse into what can go wrong. Crime labs across the country are
struggling with similar problems but documented evidence has been hard to
The State Patrol cases reveal that the technology has an Achilles' heel:
Forensic scientists tainted tests with their own DNA in eight of the 23
cases. They made mistakes in 6 others, from throwing out evidence swabs to
misreading results, fingering the wrong rape suspect. Tests were
contaminated by DNA from unrelated cases in three examinations, and
between evidence in the same case in another. The source of contamination
in 5 other tests is unknown.
Every cell in the human body contains a copy of a person's unique DNA, or
deoxyribonucleic acid, a microscopic foot-long strand that determines eye
color, height and other inherited characteristics. A DNA match is
considered infallible proof of guilt or innocence in many crimes.
Sophisticated DNA testing has played a crucial role in high-profile cases,
including the crime lab's work in helping put Green River Killer Gary
Ridgway behind bars for life last year and cracking a number of
Crime lab officials here and elsewhere don't like to talk about the fact
that the same test that can link someone to a crime scene with a few
minuscule cells left on a doorknob can also be contaminated by a passing
sneeze. Or that DNA tests are only as reliable as the humans doing them --
a troubling prospect when dealing with evidence that has the power to
exonerate suspects or imprison them for life.
"The amazing thing is how many screw-ups they have for a technique that
they go into court and say is infallible," said William C. Thompson, a
forensic expert and professor of criminology and law at the University of
California-Irvine, who reviewed the incidents at the request of the P-I.
"What we're seeing in these 23 cases is really the tip of the iceberg."
That's because the lab is only catching obvious cases that likely signal
more widespread problems, Thompson said.
State Patrol lab officials disagree, saying they have strict protocols in
place that guarantee these incidents represent only a tiny fraction of the
1,400 DNA cases handled each year.
"We're as good as any lab and probably better than many," said Barry
Logan, who as director of the crime labs -- the Forensic Laboratory
Services Bureau -- oversees a $21 million biennial budget and seven labs
processing evidence for the bulk of Washington's criminal cases.
Although the labs only recently set up a mandatory reporting system for
DNA mistakes, officials are "100 percent certain that with all the
precautions we catch everything," said Gary Shutler, who supervises the
lab system's DNA work.
That's almost impossible to measure because the overburdened lab system,
faced with a rapidly expanding DNA caseload, operates almost entirely
outside of state and federal legislation, like its counterparts across the
Even the state-of-the-art FBI crime lab in Quantico, Va., was shaken by
scandal recently when a DNA analyst, Jacqueline Blake, was caught
falsifying her lab reports over a two-year period. Blake skipped an
important step in her DNA tests, then lied about it.
A Justice Department report two months ago said the FBI lab's testing
procedures needed tightening and criticized officials for dragging their
heels on retesting Blake's cases and notifying affected defendants.
Congress tried to address the gap in government oversight of crime labs a
decade ago by asking the FBI to set up DNA guidelines that crime labs must
follow to get federal funding and use the national DNA criminal databank.
Yet a private medical lab testing your blood-cholesterol level faces more
government scrutiny than forensic scientists handling evidence that could
put a defendant on death row.
Botched tests spur out-of-state exam
The single cotton-tipped swab contained an invisible speck of DNA that
would make or break the state's case against a Kirkland school bus driver
accused of raping a developmentally disabled student.
What began as a straightforward test would end up in a legal tussle over
the credibility of the Marysville crime lab's work.
The evidence landed on the desk of forensic scientist Brian Smelser, a
four-year lab employee.
His February 2001 report pointed to suspect Kirby Wayne Lyons, a Lake
Washington School District employee, as the major source of DNA. The
report, however, failed to explain traces of DNA from a second male, and
made no mention that Smelser had run the test three times due to problems.
Smelser had also told the prosecutor he'd used less of the sample than had
actually been consumed, something the defense interpreted as a cover-up
but which Smelser said was a simple error.
It was only after Lyons' attorney raised questions that the truth came
out: Smelser had contaminated all 3 tests with his own DNA.
"Mr. Smelser's sloppy reporting techniques and concealment of botched
tests cast further doubt on whether any test he performed in this case is
reliable," wrote defense attorney Jeff Cohen in a pre-trial motion seeking
to exclude Smelser as an expert witness.
Smelser said he would never deliberately withhold information about his
work. "There is nothing worth losing my job or reputation over -- no
mistake," he said yesterday.
The defense also attacked Smelser's credentials, saying studies for his
bachelor's degree in biology hadn't included a biochemistry course, a
minimum requirement for crime lab DNA work. When the lab asked Smelser to
take a makeup course, he skipped the lab work, according to Cohen. Crime
lab officials said they waived the lab time because it was too basic.
To salvage their case, prosecutors persuaded a judge to let them send what
was left of the sample to a private lab in Richmond, Calif., to be
retested even though usual procedure was to hand it over to defense
counsel. The DNA evidence was crucial because the victim, a young woman
with an IQ of 40, would not be able to testify.
"I didn't want a cross-claim at trial that there was another person out
there who might have contributed it (DNA)," said King County Deputy
Prosecutor Jim Rogers.
At a cost of $5,035, the private lab, run by renowned forensic scientist
Ed Blake, matched the DNA to Lyons, and confirmed Smelser had contaminated
the first tests.
"That case started out as a total unmitigated disaster," said Blake in a
telephone interview. He was particularly concerned that Smelser had failed
to disclose his mistakes in his report, something Blake insists on at his
Lyons, then 50, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of third-degree rape in
June 2002 and was sentenced to a year in jail. He was originally charged
with 2nd-degree rape. The lab's mishandling of the evidence likely played
a "significant role" in the prosecutor's decision to reduce the charges,
Rogers disagreed, saying that the plea was offered because the victim
wasn't able to testify. Smelser's mistake, while "unfortunate," didn't
affect the outcome of the case or undermine his confidence in the lab's
work, Rogers said.
"There was no systemic problem in that," Rogers said. "The quality of the
crime lab work has gone up tremendously. They have great scientists
The crime labs' forensic scientists are now required to disclose errors in
their DNA-testing reports, according to Shutler, a Canadian forensic
expert hired 2 years ago to oversee the state system's 2 dozen DNA
analysts. He made that change about 6 months ago.
"The old standard was, 'Something minor happened and I won't mention it,'
" said Shutler. "I'm trying to change that attitude now."
Shutler also defended Smelser, saying aggressive defense attorneys will
seize upon anything to help a client.
"It's an adversarial system," Shutler said. "The forensic scientist is
often caught in the middle."
Slightest contamination detected
In the late '80s to mid-'90s, the early days of DNA "fingerprinting," it
was a lot harder for forensic scientists to contaminate the tests.
A decade ago, DNA tests needed a quarter-size stain of blood or semen to
produce a strong match and took about six weeks to complete. Today, the
lab needs only about 40 human cells, invisible to the naked eye, to
produce a DNA profile using an extremely sensitive method called
"polymerase chain-reaction," or PCR.
With PCR tests, DNA is extracted from a sample, mixed with special
chemicals and put into computerized machines that make thousands of copies
of the DNA. The process takes days instead of weeks.
The type of PCR test now in use, called "short tandem repeats," or STR,
measures DNA at 13 sites, and feeds results to a computer. STR tests can
predict a DNA match that has only a one in a quadrillion -- a million
billion -- chance of being the same as a randomly selected person.
But the sensitivity of the test also means it detects even the slightest
In January, the Seattle lab's DNA supervisor, George Chan, was chatting
with a forensic scientist who was examining evidence in a child rape case.
Although Chan had no other exposure to the case, a subsequent test found
Chan's DNA, as well as that of the suspect, in the evidence -- a sample
taken from a pair of boxer shorts. The likely culprit: saliva spewed
during Chan's conversation.
DNA analysts are now required to use a Plexiglas screen, wear a mask or
refrain from talking while testing DNA, Shutler said.
The lab system has been tightening up all its procedures to reduce
contamination, from training staff on sterile procedures to tracking the
incidents. The DNA profiles of forensic scientists are also kept on file
to compare with suspicious results. Police officers who collect evidence
at crime scenes could soon be asked to do the same.
"The challenge is to contain it, identify it and disclose it," Shutler
said of the risk of contamination.
The occasional "contamination event" is inevitable, said Blake, the
California scientist, but crime labs aren't routinely disclosing those
"We have a duty to tell people about that," he said.
Many crime labs are "stunningly ignorant: about contamination, said Janine
Arvizu, an Albuquerque-based forensic scientist who has audited federal
and private industry labs.
"I wish they'd step up and say, 'We need help cleaning it up,' " Arvizu
said. "But they won't. It's pretty scary."
The number of incidents at the State Patrol labs, she said, indicates a
"significant contamination problem."
'Royal road to a false conviction'
When the mystery man's DNA showed up in evidence from the Pacific
child-rape case, Detective James Pickett was mystified.
"That was a pretty big deal," he said. "We did a lot of work trying to
figure out who this other guy was."
Perplexed, Pickett pushed to have the evidence retested, but the
explanation came too late.
Today, he believes what happened 2 years ago was an aberration. "The lab
does a lot of great work," he said, "(but) they are still human."
Rogers, the King County prosecutor who handled the case, called the DNA
mix-up "an issue for the case," but said the No. 1 reason behind the plea
bargain was to spare the victim from testifying.
The defendant, who had a previous child molestation conviction, ended up
with a 16-year prison term. The P-I is not identifying him in order to
protect the victim's privacy.
The forensic scientist, Dornan, was temporarily taken off casework after
the mistake was discovered, a crime lab report indicated. Dornan refused
to comment on the case.
The contamination was traced to Dornan failing to sterilize scissors
between cutting evidence samples in the two cases. After that problem came
to light, lab officials adopted more stringent sterilization procedures.
Since then, at least 2 more incidents of cross-contamination between cases
have occurred -- one in 2003, and one this year, records show. Both
mistakes were caught before a report was issued because the contamination
showed up in control samples that are not supposed to contain any DNA, lab
Contamination in control samples is the easiest type to catch and can
point to more widespread problems, said Thompson, the criminology
"Who can believe the only contamination they have is those (cases) where
they can detect it? There's inevitably lots more," Thompson said.
That contention was recently confirmed by a study in the May 2004 Journal
of Forensic Sciences that found that clean controls don't guarantee
If DNA from a suspect's reference sample contaminated evidence, there'd be
little chance of detecting it, Thompson said.
"That's the royal road to a false conviction."
Police nearly extradite wrong person
Crime lab forensic scientist Denise Olson called Seattle police with good
news in December 2002. Her DNA testing revealed a match to the suspect in
a case involving a brutal rape and attempted murder. The victim suffered a
fractured skull, lacerated liver and other injuries.
Detectives contacted a deputy prosecutor, who prepared to file charges
against a former boyfriend of the military doctor attacked in the May 2002
assault. Police got ready to extradite the suspect from Denver.
11 days after declaring the match, Olson called back.
The test had actually ruled out the suspect. She'd misinterpreted the
results, and so had a colleague who did a quick check. Another forensic
scientist noticed the error during peer-review, a process in which workers
double-check each other's work.
"I frankly had a brain fart," Olson said in a recent interview.
Her mistake was a "false-positive match" -- one of the worst mistakes a
forensic scientist can make, said Arvizu, the auditor. "That's a classic
error that reflects a bias on the part of the analyst wanting to make a
Olson, who has worked in the crime lab system since 1998, said she tried
not to be swayed by detectives' belief that they had a strong suspect.
"We're all human," she said. "I tried not to let it influence me. But I
can't say it never does."
Records show she didn't keep notes on her calls to police, as required.
She also threw out the erroneous draft report, a violation of lab policy.
Police called lab officials to complain in January 2003.
An investigation concluded that Olson had misread the test, which
contained a mixture of DNA from at least two people -- a complex sample
that requires careful interpretation. She missed indications in the DNA
that excluded the suspect.
The lab's internal review said Olson rushed her work in order to satisfy
"The quality of interpretations and data review should not be compromised
under pressure from the submitting agencies to prematurely release
results," the internal crime lab report said.
Lab officials later issued a systemwide memo stating that cases must be
reviewed by a colleague and approved by a supervisor before DNA results
are released verbally.
It wasn't the 1st time Olson's DNA work had been criticized. Twice in the
previous 6 months, she made mistakes, running samples in the wrong order
in a robbery case and throwing out evidence swabs in a homicide.
"It was a particularly stressful time," Olson said, adding that she
transferred from the Seattle to Spokane lab during that period. She had to
take a backlog of 6 cases with her from Seattle that weren't finished.
Keeping up with the explosive demand for DNA testing is a challenge for
DNA now has the potential to help solve everything from decades-old
homicides to break-ins. Even auto thefts could be solved with DNA,
although the lab has to give priority to major cases right now.
Requests for genetic testing were up 60 percent in the first 3 months of
this year compared with the same period in 2003 -- up from 305 requests to
502. The lab system has been able to cope with the increase because
several staff recently finished DNA training. And 6 new DNA positions are
proposed in next year's budget.
Right now, at least 1/3 of the DNA analysts are inexperienced.
Said Shutler: "They're under a hell of a lot of pressure to get it out as
fast as possible and do it perfectly."
Crime lab passes 'DNA audits'
A decade ago, Congress took a stab at reform by passing the DNA
Identification Act, requiring the FBI to set up a DNA advisory board to
develop crime lab standards.
The law also provided funding to improve the quality of forensic labs, and
money for the FBI to expand its Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. The
databank contains genetic profiles of convicted offenders and DNA from
Labs must meet the FBI's DNA standards to qualify for federal funding and
have access to the national DNA databank. That is an incentive for
financially strapped crime labs, including Washington's system.
In 2000, the State Patrol received $2.1 million to hire a private lab to
help clear a backlog of 30,000 DNA samples from convicted felons that had
not been analyzed or entered into CODIS. An additional $1.8 million grant
in 2003 is paying for 56,000 more felon samples. The lab has also received
federal grants totaling almost $1.5 million since 2000 to upgrade lab
To satisfy FBI standards, the State Patrol must submit to an external "DNA
audit" once every 2 years. The lab contracts with officials from other
state crime labs to do the audit.
A review of three of those audits since 1997 indicated that the State
Patrol labs passed most items on the checklist with flying colors.
"We're audited all over the place," Logan said. "If we had any systemic
problems I guess they'd come to light in the process."
The 1999 audit did note that several DNA analysts needed to verify they'd
taken biochemistry courses, while the 2000 audit suggested staff needed
better training in interpreting complex DNA mixtures.
The 2002 audit was done by the National Forensic Science Technology
Center, a federally funded organization originally set up by the American
Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. That group hires DNA experts from
public and private labs to do the audits.
The most serious problems cited during the 2002 audit were at the Spokane
lab, where the inspector warned the "risk of contamination is high"
because of crowding in the basement facility. A new lab is under
The audit did not mention mistakes or contamination requiring "corrective
action" at any of the labs, raising questions about the thoroughness of
the reviews. The Marysville lab reported having no problems when records
show there were at least two flawed cases in the previous year.
"It almost makes you think the whole thing is a rubber stamp," said
Thompson, the criminology professor.
But Mark Nelson, who runs the audit program for the national forensic
center, said auditors pull sample cases to make sure problems are
corrected. "We are very thorough," he said.
A backlog of audit reports at the FBI meant the lab didn't receive proof
it passed the 2002 review until three months ago.
'Nobody watching the henhouse'
Crime lab officials say the ultimate test of their work is what happens in
DNA results are examined by defense experts who review lab notes, analyze
computer data and rerun tests to double-check accuracy. Experts also
observe DNA testing at the lab when a sample is too small to divide.
Yet critics say many defense attorneys are easily intimidated by DNA cases
and don't dig deeper when a suspect has been "matched" to a crime.
Instead, they cut the best deal they can.
That means only a small percentage of cases are ever reviewed by defense
experts, said Dan Krane, a biology professor at Wright State University in
Ohio, who runs a private forensic consulting company.
"There's nobody watching the henhouse," Krane said.
Underlying this divide in the forensic community are divergent views about
the role state-run crime labs play in the criminal justice system.
Crime lab employees say they are objective scientists doing their best to
uncover the truth -- not biased members of the prosecution team. "We don't
see ourselves that way," said Logan, adding that one-third of their
testing excludes suspects. "We have no interest in seeing the wrong person
in jail for a crime."
That doesn't reassure critics, who say crime labs are primarily set up to
service police and prosecutors. "That goal comes to cloud their need for
scientific rigor," said Thompson, the criminology professor.
Society deserves more assurances that justice will be served when crime
labs wield the powerful tool of DNA testing, he said.
"Innocent people aren't that common," Thompson said. "The question is, do
they have the ability to detect when an innocent person comes along?"
(source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
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