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Defense Expert Calls DNA Test Method Reliable

August 29, 1995|JIM NEWTON and STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Transforming an internationally respected forensic scientist into his own witness, a prosecutor Monday elicited criminalist Henry Lee's endorsement of a type of DNA testing used by authorities to build their case against O.J. Simpson.

That form of DNA testing, known as PCR analysis, was heavily criticized by another defense expert, but Lee, whose easygoing modesty and unparalleled credentials have lent weight to his testimony on Simpson's behalf, told jurors he used that same technique in his own laboratory. Lee's examination came on the expected eve of what may be the trial's most important hearing, Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito's consideration of the admissibility of tapes and transcripts featuring the comments of recently retired LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman.

With the fate of the newly uncovered Fuhrman evidence still hanging in the balance, sources said the Los Angeles Police Department probe into the tapes and transcripts was turning up new and potentially unsettling details.

Sources said that in addition to focusing on Fuhrman's descriptions of two police beating cases, the investigation has uncovered evidence that Fuhrman, and possibly other officers, may have lied to Internal Affairs investigators during the mid-1980s when questioned about Men Against Women, an informal group of male police officers in the West Los Angeles station. And the police probe has unveiled previously unreported racist statements by the detective, the sources added.

All that unfolded outside the jury's presence, but in court a mostly impassive panel listened attentively as Lee spent another day on the witness stand, this time mostly undergoing questioning by Deputy Dist. Atty. Hank Goldberg.

"Dr. Lee," Goldberg asked near the outset of his deferential cross-examination, "are you using PCR technology in criminal cases both to include and exclude people as having committed a crime?"

"Yes," Lee responded confidently.

Denver microbiologist John Gerdes testified that PCR technology was unreliable in criminal cases, but Lee countered by saying that such a determination should be left to forensic scientists, not just to biologists.

"I think forensic scientists should have a good say about what method we should do, what is the reliable procedure, what kind of applications," said Lee, adding that such a determination should not be "dictated by molecular biologists or other scientists [who] tell us what to do."

Despite Ito's concerns last week regarding the jury's growing weariness, panelists seemed attentive Monday, watching Lee closely, though taking few notes. As the session passed into the afternoon--Ito had advised Goldberg to spend half an hour conducting his cross-examination, but Goldberg used almost the entire day--some of the jurors' interest seemed to wane.

A few wore quizzical expressions during the late afternoon as Goldberg posed a series of detailed questions about tiles on the walkway. By day's end, the jurors had given up note-taking altogether.

PCR testing is a less definitive form of DNA analysis than RFLP testing. Both types of analysis were used in the Simpson case and form the bulwark of the prosecution's contention that Simpson committed the June 12, 1994, murders of Ronald Lyle Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. He has pleaded not guilty, but two different labs concluded that blood with his genetic markers was discovered at the scene of the crimes.

And blood with markers matching those of the two victims turned up in Simpson's car and on a glove that Fuhrman said he found outside Simpson's home. Moreover, socks discovered in his bedroom were stained with blood matched to that of Nicole Simpson, completing the prosecution's so-called "trail of blood" from the scene of the crimes to Simpson's room.

One of the PCR tests also suggested that a stain on Goldman's boot could have been a mixture of the blood of the two victims--evidence that bolsters the prosecution's theory that a single assailant committed both killings and dripped blood from the knife onto Goldman's shoe. Lee has offered testimony that could cast doubt on the single-killer theory--he testified, for instance, that the struggle with Goldman was not a short one and also that prints near the bodies could have come from a second set of shoes--but his support for PCR technology represents a significant concession to the prosecution. Defense attorneys long have tried to suggest that the PCR test results are unreliable because the PCR process is highly susceptible to contamination.

Prosecution experts have downplayed that potential in light of the numerous tests performed in the Simpson case, but Monday's testimony marked the first time that a witness called by the defense backed up the prosecution's contention that PCR testing produces reliable results.

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