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A war for control of forensic science

In Orange County, the fight over a DNA unit reflects a wider debate.

December 14, 2008|Jason Felch and Maura Dolan | Felch and Dolan are Times staff writers.

In June, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas made a bold grab for a crown jewel of local law enforcement: the DNA unit of the sheriff's crime lab.

With the lab's director out of town and the sheriff recently deposed by corruption charges, Rackauckas submitted a brief agenda item to county supervisors two business days before their regular meeting.

"Our aim is to make significant changes in the way forensic DNA analysis is conducted," Rackauckas wrote. The D.A.'s office is "the only organization capable of harnessing the vast potential of forensic DNA technology."

The move capped a three-year tug of war for control of DNA analysis in a historically conservative county where putting criminals behind bars can bring substantial political rewards.

"I have never experienced anything like it in more than 30 years of law enforcement," recalled Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who took over the department in the midst of the battle. "I couldn't get my brain around it, and no one I've spoken with could either."

To end the bickering, one member of the Board of Supervisors proposed putting the county's entire crime lab in the hands of an independent agency headed by a scientist. But, in the end, the board split control among the political players: the D.A., the sheriff and the county chief executive.

The power struggle in Orange County is a sign of an intensifying national debate over who should control forensic science -- a question that has taken on new importance with the explosion of genetic evidence.

More by happenstance than design, crime labs most often are run by law enforcement agencies: police and sheriffs or, in three California counties, prosecutors. Many experts say that arrangement has left the science vulnerable to undue influence and lax oversight, leading in some cases to wrongful convictions.

"Many of the forensic scandals -- cases of outright fraud or undue pressure -- are precisely the result of this institutional coziness," said UCLA law school professor Jennifer Mnookin, who calls the arrangement "incredibly dangerous."

For these reasons, a landmark report by the National Academy of Sciences, a research arm of the federal government, is expected to recommend next year that control of crime labs be given to independent scientists, according to three people who have read the confidential draft report.

Rackauckas has pushed hard in the other direction. He dismissed concerns about potential conflicts of interest, saying prosecutors are uniquely qualified to ensure that evidence is handled properly and that priorities are set to prevent lab backlogs.

In the years leading to his attempted takeover of the sheriff's DNA unit, the district attorney spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in a bid to prove his point. He essentially built his own system of DNA collection and analysis, in some cases duplicating what was being done by the sheriff's lab.

His efforts fell largely outside the regulations that govern state and national DNA systems, which were designed to prevent abuses and protect the privacy of innocent people.

Rackauckas and his admirers point to his successes, particularly in using DNA to solve property crimes such as auto theft and home burglaries. The bane of urban areas, these offenses typically result in charges 10% of the time. In a pilot project using DNA evidence in selected cases, he was able to double that rate, according to statistics he submitted to the board.

"Mr. Rackauckas is the most innovative and aggressive of D.A.s in the DNA area," said Kern County Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels, who runs his county's crime lab. "Among D.A.s, I think there's some respect for what Mr. Rackauckas has done, and a certain measure of envy."

Wrongful conviction

Some of the deepest concerns about the Orange County D.A.'s influence over forensic science come from analysts in the sheriff's DNA unit.

In interviews, several said they were shaken by a 2005 carjacking case in Buena Park.

Evidence against 20-year-old James Ochoa was conflicting: Two victims identified him as the culprit, based on a photograph police showed them. But half a dozen family members said Ochoa was home eating at the time of the crime.

Buena Park investigators hoped DNA from a baseball cap and shirt left in the stolen car would nail the case.

"If it doesn't match . . . we're not proceeding," the detective told DNA analyst Danielle Weiland, according to Weiland's deposition last January in a lawsuit by Ochoa.

Both the cap and shirt contained a mixture of DNA from multiple sources. Complex cases like this can be subject to different interpretations, experts say, requiring an experienced and impartial eye to decipher accurately.

Weiland, who had been a DNA examiner since 2001, found a distinct DNA profile from an unidentified person, but it did not belong to Ochoa. Convinced that the profile belonged to the perpetrator, she submitted it for comparison to those of known offenders in the national database system, hoping for a "match."

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