Nov
15

Suzanne Jovin: The Lab Tech Did It?

DNA evidence has become the gold standard of a criminal prosecution: Find it, type it and match it and a suspect is either transformed into a guilty party or exonerated. We forget, however, that DNA evidence does not speak. It remains circumstantial evidence. At most, DNA evidence permits a fact finder to draw an inference that the presence of a person's DNA at a crime scene means that the person was there at the time the crime was committed. That's it!

Consider the unsolved case of Suzanne Jovin. The 21-year-old Yale University student was found stabbed to death in an affluent residential neighborhood in New Haven in 1998. Her throat was slashed and she had been stabbed repeatedly in the back.

Lawmen announced that the DNA of another person had been retrieved from beneath a fingernail on her left hand. The stranger's DNA was there as a result of Ms. Jovin's close quarter struggle with her killer, lawmen told the world. Identify the source of the DNA and there's your killer.

The state tested the DNA of nearly 50 suspects, and failed to find a match. The case remains open. So far as the world knows, the state is no closer to solving the case now than it was a decade ago.

Except for the following: We now know the identity of the person whose DNA matches that found beneath the fingernail of Ms. Jovin. The man's name is Kitti Settachatgul. He is a retired state worker who once was suspended from his job of taking money he should never have accepted. Where was Mr. Settachatgul the night Ms. Jovin was murdered? Is he able now to construct an alibi for his whereabouts one discreet night a decade ago? He know lives in Thailand, after retiring from state service.

Ms. Settachatgul is not a suspect in the crime, however. He is not a suspect because although his DNA matches that allegedly taken from beneath the fingernail of Ms. Jovin, the state has constructed an innocent explanation for the presence of his DNA: You see, Mr. Settachatgul worked in the state DNA lab responsible for identifying, extracting and typing Ms. Jovin's DNA. The state's working theory is that Mr. Settachatgul's DNA is associated with crime because of sloppy police work: Mr. Settachatgul contaminated the DNA sample by careless handling of the evidence.

The limits of DNA evidence are at once on display. Had the DNA matched that of one of the 50 or so suspects whose DNA had previously been taken, there is little doubt but that a warrant would have been issued for the arrest of the matching party. Woe to the unlucky defendant in such a case. DNA is a talisman in the criminal court: it sets men free and sends men to their death with the algorithmic calm of a metronome. Indeed, in Connecticut, the state's Innocence Project has declared open love and adoration for the state's forensic crime lab: state and defense work under terms of an inquisitorial vow that looks askance at the adversarial process. DNA is regarded as magic.

But there is no magic in the Jovin case. Instead, there are new questions. Were their epithelial cells present beneath the fingernail of Ms. Jovin? These are skin cells, easily shed, and bearing DNA identifying the source of the cells. If so, was the density of those cells sufficient to support an inference that they were deposited under Ms. Jovin's skin during a struggle, rather than during the routine handling of evidence by a careless laboratory technician?

How did the State conclude that foreign DNA was beneath Ms. Jovin's nail? When was this determination made? Why did it take eight-plus years to figure out that the DNA sample matched a lab employee? And, perhaps most telling of all, just how did law enforcement decide to rule out Mr. Settachatgul as a suspect?

"[A]ll along we knew that the DNA evidence when only relevant when we knew who it belonged to," said the prosecutor responsible for investigating the case. "Now we know it is irrelevant."

The logic defies me. More needs to be known than that the suspect DNA was a lab worker. Had the DNA belonged to one of Ms. Jovin's professors, that professor would have faced a myriad of questions. What questions has the lab worker faced?

I realize how farcical the suggestion that the lab worker did it sounds. I raise the issue here not because I have any reason to suspect his guilt, but to hold in relief both the power and limits of DNA evidence. When viewed through a lens of suspicion, the evidence damns. Remove that lens, and all the evidence shows is mere presence.

Sadly, this example of poor laboratory work will now reopen the investigation of all those folks who were ruled out as a result of the assumption that foreign DNA under Ms. Jovin's fingernail belonged to that of the killer. This powerful piece of circumstantial evidence has been destroyed. It is back to square one for the Jovin family, and for all those whose lives were scrutinized in the weeks and months following the murder.

The case also raises important questions for the criminal defense bar in any case involving DNA: Should the defense be entitled as a matter of right to testing to determine whether DNA retrieved at a crime scene matches that of any of the folks who handled the evidence, including first responders, evidence officers and lab technicians?

Chain of custody evidence is sometimes treated as the step-child of trial. The Jovin case reminds us that great injustices can be built upon fatal and unchallenged assumptions. Unless, of course, the lab technician really did commit the crime. And, of course, that's a possibility the state seems unwilling even to consider in the troubling case of Suzanne Jovin.
Comments (2)
Posted on November 17, 2009 at 7:01 am by William Doriss
This is an excellent analysis, and I have gone rou...
This is an excellent analysis, and I have gone round and round with the State Innocence Project regarding my own (non-DNA) cases. This new development in the Jovin case, and Mr. Pattis's reflections on same, demonstrate that DNA is NOT the Magic, Silver Bullet that its proponents make it out to be. I notice Mr. Pattis does not name the lead investigator. But we know who is, and we also suspect he is totally incompetent. But in CT, there is no accountability for incompetence, or malfeasance, of which there is plenty.

In the Edward Grant case, it is certainly possible that the incriminating DNA evidence against Grant was obtained through skulduggery--a possibility I personally discovered and have written about previously for years. A possibility acknowledged by none other than lead defense attorney Thomas Ullmann. Meanwhile, I believe an innocent man sits in prison. He is hardly the only one in CT. I attended that trial and wrote a letter disagreeing with the guilty verdict, published in the New Haven Register, using my real name.

Another DNA murder trial I attended was the case of Christopher McCowen, Barnstable Co., 2006. The Defense did not deny the presence of DNA on and around the victim. However, they claimed it may have been deposited there previously, and with consent. The defendant maintained his innocence. Other plausible suspects and scenarios were ignored and/or not investigated. There may have been a massive police and state-sponsored cover-up.

Once again, I disagreed with the guilty verdicts, and believe an innocent man sits in prison. Furtermmore, the judge demonstrably 'tampered' with the jury and otherwise directed the outcome of the trial, against the defendant's right to the presumption of innocence and trial by an unbiased jury of his peers. The criminal justice system in America needs to be examined and re-examined from the ground up.

There must be instituted a fail-safe process or procedure whereby innocent men and women do not get convicted of crimes they did not commit. For the record; my Ct cases: 00-495971, conjoined illegally with 01-502506 at GA 23. Appellate #23941. S.C. cert. denied. Federal: 05-668RNC, dismissed unlawfully against the clear pleading standard of Conley v. Gibson, USSC, 1957. 2nd Cir, 06-4907 and 06-5487, unpublished. U.S. Supreme Court, docketed 08-6378, cert. denied. CT is a lawless land, and the courts do not work.

Posted on November 15, 2009 at 7:09 pm by Walter Reaves
My understanding has always been that anyone who w...
My understanding has always been that anyone who works in a DNA lab has their profile on file for this very reason. I would hope that is part of the lab protocols. If that's the case, you have to wonder why this wasn't discover earlier.
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About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
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