The Grand Inquistoress?

Karen Goodrow is one of my heroines. She is Director of Connecticut’s Innocence Project. Her salary is paid by the State’s Public Defender’s Office, and she is housed by the good folks of McCarter & English, who serve the gods demanding pro bono service. She is a true believe, a cardinal, well, perhaps even a pope, among true believers.

But as she spoke the other night about DNA evidence at a Connecticut Bar Association program I began to feel as though I were attending a wake. It was not simply that she was dressed in black, although that may perhaps have added to the funereal mood. It was what she said that drove me further into the arms of my analyst. You see, whether knowingly or not, Karen was forecasting the death of the adversarial system in certain classes of criminal cases. I’ll forever think of her now as the Grand Inquisitoress.

DNA, the stuff we share with chimpanzees and every other living organism, is the rage just now in criminal courts. It is magic stuff. Never mind that all but a fraction of ours is identical to our tree-swinging pals at the zoo. The part that sets us apart is unique, and it separates us one from another in ways that make what the forensic crowd calls individuation possible.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, DNA evidence is along among applications of science to evidence in its ability to confidently say that material comes from one person to the exclusion of others. Competent DNA testing literally has the power to set a person free, as Goodrow well knows. Her dogged and brilliant work set James Calvin Tillman free. His DNA, you see, what not on the victim’s clothing. Put in the jargon of criminal defense lawyers: Some other dude did it.

Everyone, it turns out, now expects DNA evidence. Its absence can destroy an otherwise solid case if a juror thinks DNA is required to dispel reasonable doubt.

But much though I admire Goodrow, I shuddered as she spoke. She was explaining the protocol used by the Innocence Project in selecting cases. They look for cases in which there is evidence of factual innocence. There must be new evidence; they don’t want to retry old cases with old evidence.

When DNA is present, Good row reports, she can count on the help what she referred to as "our lab." Whence this possessive pronoun? Has McCarter & English funded an independent forensic lab, too. (Note to Charles Ray: I want a job.)

No. Goodrow has become quite chummy with the Connecticut Forensic Laboratory. This agency feigns independence, but is, in fact, an organ of the Connecticut Department of Public Safety. That is the same agency that oversees the state police.

In a recent report, the National Academy of Sciences called for truly independent crime labs. Such labs "should function independently of law enforcement administrators," a national panel of scientists concluded. The report also called for uniform national standards for the training and accreditation of folks working in forensic labs. Right now, it is a free for all out there. Junk
science is everywhere. Ask Henry Lee, whose golden arches are everywhere.

What is striking about the NAS report is that the list of folks on the panel and the list of those who testified before it does not include Dr. Henry Lee or anyone, apparently, associated with the University of West Haven. It is as though the owl of Minerva flew right over Connecticut (OK. Obscure reference check: Wisdom.)

Listening to Karen the other night I foresaw a set of judicial proceedings in which evidence is simply mailed in by a state forensic lab. The tests will do all the talking. That should reassure, I suppose, but the sources of human error and bias in any test are ever present. Even in the Connecticut Forensic Laboratory. Don’t get too chummy with the state Karen. We need a truly independent set of forensic labs.

Reprinted courtest of the Connecticut Law Tribune.


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