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Archive for October, 2010 Monthly Archives

On Wednesday October 13th the Supreme Court justices asked about an hour’s worth of questions regarding Henry Skinner’s request that a Texas district attorney turn over all existing DNA evidence in the triple murder he was convicted of in 1995.

In an interview Skinner said, “Turn over the evidence and test it, and let the chips fall where they may. If I’m innocent I go home. If I’m guilty, I die. What’s so hard about that?”

The justices, the two attorneys representing Skinner, and district attorney Lynn Switzer referred to around a half-dozen Supreme Court precedents in addition to the difference between a civil rights claim, using federal habeas law to attack a wrongful conviction, the respect owed state courts when the justices are interpreting state statutes and even the definition of the word “necessarily.”  The issue that they never came close to was the question of whether DNA evidence that might prove a person guilty or innocent should always be available to the convicted.

This is because in a 2009 decision involving an Alaska man who was convicted of kidnapping and rape, the court ruled 5 to 4 that prisoners do not have a constitutional right to DNA evidence. The court did however acknowledged that such DNA testing had an “unparalleled ability” to separate the guilty from the innocent, the majority of the court said that the decision on when prisoners have the right to such DNA testing are best left to state legislatures and Congress.  While this appears to be a roadblock to prisoner’s requests for additional DNA testing the justices left a small loophole.  The Justices allowed that  for civil rights claims, if the prisoner could show that he was denied due process to obtaining evidence that could lead to his exoneration they should be allowed additional DNA testing.

That is the argument that Skinner and his attorneys are seeking to use. Skinner has always proclaimed his innocence, despite acknowledging that he was in the home during the brutal killings of his girlfriend and her two children on New Year’s Eve 1993. Skinner has always claimed that he was passed out on what tests later showed to be a near-lethal combination of codeine and alcohol and that he could not have overpowered and killed the three in his condition. He said he woke to find them dead; the blood on his clothes came from examining them.

When the trial occurred prosecutors tested some of the DNA evidence from the home.  They did not test material from a rape kit, or skin cells under Busby’s fingernails, or hairs and other evidence from the scene. This is the evidence that Skinner is claiming will prove his innocence.  At the time it seems a strategic decisions was made by both the prosecutors and the defense.  Prosecutors did not feel they needed the extra evidence.  While Skinner’s lawyer feared more testing would only make the case against his client stronger.

After the trial Skinner and his supporters, including Northwestern University’s Medill Innocence Project, have pointed out that Busby had expressed fear of her uncle,  Skinner contends that the now deceased uncle is the possible killer, and Skinner states that he always wanted the evidence tested.

Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing was based solely on technical arguments. Skinner’s attorney told the court that the only issue was whether Skinner could use the federal courts to press his civil rights claim to the evidence. He cited a previous court ruling that gave prisoners access to some evidence as long as the claim would not “necessarily imply the invalidity of a conviction or sentence.”

“I would interpret his complaint is what he wants is the DNA. He thinks it’s going to be exculpatory. He doesn’t know that till he gets it,” stated Justice Stephen G. Breyer.  While Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said “In the real world, a prisoner who wants access to DNA evidence is interested in overturning his conviction,” and so his request for the DNA could not be separated from his attempt to get off death row.

Gregory Coleman, who represented district attorney Switzer, agreed with Justice Samel A. Alito Jr. stating that, “this is an attack on the criminal proceeding.”  Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan both pointed out that this places Skinner in a Catch-22, because he couldn’t challenge the wrongfulness of his conviction without knowing the results of the DNA test.

At this time there has been no ruling on the case.

Over the years scientists have painstakingly mapped the DNA genome of humans, corn, turkeys and now chocolate. A researchers funded by McLean Candy Company (Mars) is almost done sequencing the genome of the cacao tree, which produces the seeds used to make cocoa.

Researchers are hoping that the information will speed up the process for creating a stronger tree that is more resistant to disease and easier to grow.

The real question is… Does this mean better-tasting chocolate? A McLean scientist said that it might. He noted that some eaters have complained that the quality of cocoa has fallen, but no one knows whether that is because of soil, weather or genetics. At least one of the keys to flavor is the fatty acid content of the cocoa. “Now finally, we have insight on how to stabilize it and raise it over time,” Shapiro said.

Brazil used to be one of the top producers of cacao, until a fungus called witches’-broom struck the crop in the late 1980s and devastated the country’s industry. Now more than 70 percent of the world’s cocoa supply comes from West Africa.

This project stated in 2008, when Mars, in partnership with IBM and the USDA, committed $10 million to the project.

Results of a Texas Department of Public Safety audit on the Austin Police Department crime lab will be released this afternoon

Back in July former employee Cecily Hamilton filed a complaint stating that there were mistakes with DNA testing at the crime lab.  This complaint sent shock waves throughout the court system and put hundreds of cases with DNA evidence in jeopardy.

Once Hamilton’s complaint became public, Austin Police Department Chief, Art Acevedo and District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg asked that an audit of the lab be done.  Both Lehmberg and Acevedo stated that they were confident in the DNA testing at the lab.  They went on to say that the audit would help restore faith in the lab and would allow the department to be transparent with the public.

In August a report was released regarding an investigation into North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) crime lab. Two retired FBI agents were hired to conduct the investigation following the release of Greg Taylor after 16 years in prison.

The story was first reported by Reason Magazine.  Reason Magazine stated that, “The report found that SBI agents withheld exculpatory evidence or distorted evidence in more than 230 cases over a 16 year period. Three of those cases resulted in execution. There was widespread lying, corruption and pressure from prosecutors and other law enforcement officials on crime lab analysts to produce results that would help secure convictions.”

The 2009 National Academy of Science Report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward” which was critical of many aspects of the current forensic sciences process reported that crime laboratories need to be independent from the direction of law enforcement.

While  there are many forensic field screening tests that look for the presence of blood there are many substances that will produce a false positive result for the “presence of blood”. This means that it is very important that field screening is followed up with “confirmatory” testing to confirm the field findings.

Agents with The News Observer reported that, “according to the review, the cases involved SBI lab reports that were overstated, misleading or omitted important information about negative test results that would have been favorable to the defendants. The SBI’s lab work is often powerful evidence in criminal cases, shaping decisions at the heart of a defense that include decisions about plea bargaining or how to cross examine witnesses. The SBI has followed more updated procedures on blood analysis since 2003, and more recent work is not under scrutiny. The tests that are examined in the bulk of this report are no longer in use.

According to lab notes discovered in 2009, the North Carolina Crime Lab had performed more specific tests, which registered negative results for the presence of blood when examining evidence from the Taylor case. During the hearing an analyst never mentioned those results or any additional. The analyst testified that his superiors taught him to write his reports like that.