Many thrillers and murder mysteries rely on some aspect of DNA evidence to solve the crime. This is true in the make-believe world of written fiction as well as in movies and television. Certainly, it is true in the real world of forensics.
So, I was fascinated to read an article in the New York Times about two generally-accepted DNA analysis methods being called into question.
Earlier this year, the DNA laboratory in the office of New York City’s chief medical examiner discontinued using two methods of “high-sensitivity testing” of trace amounts of DNA. These methods of analysis had been used for years and were considered cutting edge science by many. These methods were said to go beyond even the standards set by the FBI and other public labs for trace evidence.
These unique analysis techniques allowed for DNA identification from microscopic samples of evidence and even for separation of DNA that contained a mix of more than one person’s genetic material. As the city’s lab reputation spread, more than 50 jurisdictions, besides the New York police department, used the lab to process DNA samples, and this included the FBI.
In a statement to the professional community, the city’s lab replaced the old analytical techniques with “newer and more broadly used technology.” The medical examiner’s office stood by the science of these discarded techniques, and considered them well-tested and valid. The reported reason for the change was to adopt to newer methods that were “more aligned with changing FBI standards.”
This change, however, has initiated an inquiry by a coalition of defense lawyers. The coalition recently requested the New York State inspector general’s office to launch an investigation to determine if the previous—and now discarded—DNA analysis techniques were flawed.
Such an inquiry, if it goes forward, could put into question the outcomes of thousands of criminal cases in which the DNA analysis methods were used to gather incriminating evidence.
The Legal Aid Society and the Federal Defenders of New York informed the inspector general that they now question the medical examiner’s office lab results in numerous previous cases. Their statements implied that the medical examiner’s office engaged in neglectful conduct that undermined the integrity of conventional DNA testing with these previously unproven analytic methods. If an eventual investigation proves that flaws existed in the previous DNA testing methodology, this could prompt a tsunami of litigation to overturn and/or reconsider previous convictions.
One specific trial could become a test case for the legal defense community. DNA from the beating of Taj Patterson in December of 2013 was tested using the disputed techniques. A group of Hasidic men attacked Mr. Patterson in Brooklyn. Six days after the attack, the police found one of Mr. Patterson’s shoes on a nearby roof.
This shoe was sent to the New York DNA lab and technicians recovered a minute amount of DNA from two people. Using software developed by the lab, it was determined that most of the DNA belonged to a young father who lived and worked in Brooklyn near where the attack took place.
The man had no criminal record, no other defendants were identified and no other physical evidence linked the man to the attack on Mr. Patterson; but, the man was convicted for gang assault by the judge and sentenced to four years in prison. The man’s attorney is appealing the conviction and the potential for flawed DNA evidence will likely be used in this appeal.
If the defendant’s appeal is successful with arguments to throw out the DNA analysis, it could call into question almost 3,500 other cases in which both of the discarded trace analysis techniques were used as evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
I was thinking what an interesting plot twist this would make for a murder mystery in which the perpetrator gets off scot-free because of perceived flaws in previous DNA testing.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!