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Rape Suspect's Case Is Dismissed; Improper DNA Procedure Cited : Crime: But the Buena Park man held for over two years won't be released; he still faces burglary charges.

January 23, 1991|JERRY HICKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — A Superior Court judge dismissed a 39-count rape case against an ex-convict Tuesday because prosecutors had not laid a proper foundation for introducing DNA-test evidence against him.

Danny Harris, 41, of Buena Park, who has been held on $250,000 bail for more than two years while awaiting trial, will not be set free, however. He has a burglarly case pending, which is expected to be tried in about two weeks.

Prosecutors now have two options: refile rape and related charges, which could mean another lengthy preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to try Harris, or ask the 4th District Court of Appeal to reverse Tuesday's ruling by Superior Court Judge William W. Bedsworth.

Bedsworth told attorneys in the case that he would welcome an appellate court ruling. Bedsworth, a hard-line law enforcement advocate, said in an interview later: "The truth is, I hope they decide I'm wrong."

Harris was arrested in Garden Grove on July 4, 1988, on suspicion of burglary. But he immediately became a suspect in a series of rapes dating back to 1985, which was shortly after his release from prison on a rape conviction.

The primary evidence against him was DNA blood tests, known as genetic fingerprinting. DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, contains the biochemical makeup of an individual's genes. Prosecutors claim that DNA testing can accurately determine whether semen left in a victim matches that of a defendant. In a monthslong preliminary hearing last year, Harris' original 69-count case, primarily involving victims in North Orange County, was pared down by then-Municipal Judge William R. Froeberg to 39 counts involving 15 victims.

But on Tuesday, Bedsworth granted a motion by Harris' lawyers that the case be dismissed. Bedsworth found that Deputy Dist. Atty. Dennis Bauer had failed to show the preliminary hearing judge that the DNA analysis was valid.

Bauer contended that he only had to show that the process for reaching the results was valid.

Bedsworth disagreed.

The judge said later: "My ruling did not rule out the admissibility of DNA evidence in other cases. The issue before me was very narrow--it won't be a precedent elsewhere."

But Harris' attorney, John D. Barnett, hailed Bedsworth's ruling as "highly significant."

"For all the great stuff you hear about how wonderful DNA is, it's highly subjective," Barnett said. "It's still basically a technician looking at a blob of Jell-O and turning it into a race track and trying to pick out two matches."

DNA testing has been hailed by the Orange County Sheriff's Department's crime lab as the biggest breakthrough in criminal investigations since fingerprinting. It has already been tested in other Orange County cases. More significantly, several defendants have pleaded guilty in sexual assault cases in the face of having a DNA test conducted with a sample of their blood.

The preliminary hearing judge had ruled the DNA results admissible. Of the 15 rapes and sexual assaults for which Harris was bound over for trial, 12 of them included DNA testing.

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