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THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

DNA Experts Bring Bitter War to L.A.

March 29, 1995|BILL BOYARSKY

Welcome to the DNA war, where lawyers and scientists attack one another with the fervor of cult members, routinely engaging in character assassination and vicious assaults on professional competence.

The war, fought in criminal trials over the last several years, exploded in the O.J. Simpson trial Monday when prosecutor Rockne Harmon savaged the defense's Nobel Prize-winning DNA expert. He assailed Dr. Kary Mullis, one of the world's more accomplished scientists, as a confessed "longtime drug (LSD) user/abuser" and threatened to cross-examine him on his "credibility, competence and sobriety."

This is the way the experts talk in the fierce debate over the forensic value of the famous little molecule, deoxyribonucleic acid. As Edward Humes put it in a 1992 Los Angeles Times Magazine article: "Reputations have been tarnished, accusations of government conspiracies and defense lawyers' cabals have been thrown into the fire and bitter rifts among researchers have arisen. . . ."

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Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize in 1993 for discovering how to endlessly replicate the DNA molecule. This has resulted in huge breakthroughs in medicine and in criminology. For example, there were only traces of blood in some areas of the Simpson-Goldman death scene, with barely enough DNA available to test. By using the Mullis method to make many copies of the DNA picked up at the scene, prosecutors have much more DNA to test.

But Mullis may testify that the blood traces at the death scene are so tiny and so damaged by improper police handling that his replication method won't work on them. The prestige of Mullis' Nobel could make this testimony highly damaging to the prosecution. That explains why Harmon is so eager to discredit him.

Mullis is a 50-year-old North Carolina native who received his doctorate in biochemistry at UC Berkeley in 1966. Berkeley of the 1960s shaped his view of the world and drugs and, as he admitted in an interview in the California Monthly, the Berkeley alumni magazine, he used LSD then and, to a much lesser extent, now. "I find it's one of those things that keeps your mind from getting really old," he said.

That kind of comment did not escape the attention of Harmon, a leading figure in a nationwide DNA battle that has been going on since 1989.

That was when New York lawyers Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, now on the Simpson defense team, successfully attacked the prosecution evidence presented in a DNA case in New York. This ended a string of prosecution DNA victories.

Prosectors and defense lawyers formed rival DNA camps and carried their fight across the country.

The battlefield was the courtroom, a setting that encourages the confrontational style. Lawyers and their scientist supporters met in different trials, year after year, their professional rivalry becoming personal. It came to resemble a long and ugly strike, rather than a scientific dispute. Harmon became a leader in the prosecution camp, while Scheck and Neufeld were among the main courtroom critics of DNA. Now they confront one another in the Simpson courtroom.

A senior deputy district attorney in Alameda County, Harmon was brought in by Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti to help with the big case.

Harmon has a self-assurance that is just short of a swagger. He speaks with the confidence of the true believer and seems to regard those who disagree with him with poorly hidden contempt.

His opponent, Scheck, is much the same way. Only their oratorical styles differ. Where Harmon uses sarcasm and scorn, Scheck lashes out with outraged anger. Their rivalry, according to those who know them, has become personal as well as professional.

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Observers of the DNA war weren't surprised by the attack on Nobel-winner Mullis.

Law professor Myrna Raeder said both sides conduct themselves with "messianic fervor."

Prosecutors, she said, feel DNA evidence is so certain they will no longer have to rely on "the vagaries of eyewitnesses." In murder and rape cases, and others where DNA is a factor, crime solving could become a matter of matching samples. But critics, she said, "see more problems than solutions," more bad convictions than good ones.

Seattle DNA expert Howard Coleman said DNA critics believe "anything that empowers the government is bad because the government already has too much power."

Santa Monica attorney Paul Mones, who writes extensively about DNA, agrees. He said DNA skeptics "view it as the ultimate in Big Brotherism," approaching a time when government has a DNA record of every citizen.

All these feelings are magnified, he said, by the immensity of the Simpson case.

DNA analysis, said Coleman, is used in 10,000 criminal cases a year, 75% of them involving sexual assault. About 130,000 paternity testing cases use DNA annually.

But none of them have the fame and emotional power of the Simpson case. And none of them will have the same impact on the believability of DNA evidence in future trials. That's why the battles in the Simpson courtroom may help decide who wins the DNA war for all time.

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