DNA Evidence Doesn’t Mean the End: How the Talents of a Skilled Defense Attorney Can Help

DNA Evidence Doesn’t Mean the End: How the Talents of a Skilled Defense Attorney Can Help

News accounts are replete these days with references to cold cases purportedly being "solved" by DNA test results that may not have been available at the time the alleged crimes were actually committed. One such recent example involves an up-to-now unsolved Massachusetts murder case from 1986. Authorities say DNA evidence from testing completed during the past two years links Christopher Fleming to the crime. Investigators said in a press release that "advancements in forensic technology resulted in a DNA match" last month, where testing 15 yrs ago under then-existing procedures had not led to any match[es].

In situations like this, it is not unusual for the prosecuting DA or investigators to publicly imply, if not tout, that such results confirm the defendant’s guilt and definitively closes the case against him. This may well ultimately turn out to be so, but in this post-CSI world it is important to place DNA results in context and understand they do not always establish the end-game or mean that the case is, in fact, over.

For this reason, it is critical for any defendant so-encumbered by positive DNA results to immediately turn to lawyers and experts who not only understand the fallibility of scientific test results, but also know how to challenge them. The fact is DNA evidence is neither perfect nor unassailable, and it is not always accurate. Samples are sometimes contaminated, mislabeled, or mishandled. Authoritative studies have also shown that DNA evidence can not only be transferred from one place, object , or person to another, but actually planted at the crime scene itself. Indeed, defense experts have repeatedly shown that crime scenes can be "engineered" and that DNA evidence may be "a lot easier to plant than fingerprints." In addition to this, the methodology and qualifications of the state’s experts can also be exploited with still other studies demonstrating "... an alarmingly wide variability in capacity, oversight, staffing, certification and accreditation".

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, lies in the area of population genetics, where combinations of markers that may well be rare among all people, actually appear in higher rates among certain ethnic subgroups making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to narrow the evidence to a single suspect. It is essential that any attorney defending against DNA evidence understand this. Now, I’m not saying DNA evidence is not compelling. Nor am I suggesting it be labeled irrelevant. I am saying that a lot can still be done with it from a defense perspective in terms of sowing seeds of reasonable doubt when handled by an attorney who knows how to read related test results and lab notes, challenge the underlying chain of custody and storage, review computer print-outs and line-sheets, attack the state expert’s qualification, and file and litigate corresponding motions to suppress.

Yes, advances in forensic techniques and DNA testing during the past decade have made the task of defending certain cases more challenging , but in the end, they have not altered or changed the prosecution’s two hundred year-old burden of proving one’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Can DNA evidence make a difference? Sure. Does it always? Not in the least. Don’t believe me? Just ask OJ Simpson or Amanda Knox, both of whom once faced DNA results allegedly linking each to "key evidence."

If you have been accused of a crime and you need a lawyer to represent you please contact Brad Bailey at 781-589-2828