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Crime Lab Confidential: DA and SFPD Withheld Damaging Memo About DNA Lab Failings 

Wednesday, Aug 24 2011

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The memo could also call into question the validity of the DNA lab's accreditation by the state DOJ and ASCLD/LAB. Recognition from these bodies is important for buttressing SFPD forensic analysts' qualifications as expert witnesses, as well as securing federal funding for lab resources. During the 2010 fiscal year, San Francisco received $744,381 in such grants, according to National Institute of Justice records.

It is still unclear what Harmon's full memo has to say about the crime lab's DNA unit. Citing concerns about violating his past contractual obligations to the DA's office, Harmon declined to discuss the larger document's contents with SF Weekly. He did say that other sections of the memo dealt with DNA analysis in "cold-hit" cases, in which newly discovered DNA samples or matches revive dormant investigations.

The fragment of the report that has so far been released, however, is highly critical. For this reason, according to Public Defender Jeff Adachi, it is important that the entire document be shared with defense lawyers working on cases involving DNA evidence.

"This kind of memo, written by an expert of Rockne Harmon's reputation, is explosive," Adachi says. "You're talking about a situation — and I've been around for a couple of decades — which is really unprecedented. You have a prosecutor who is an expert in DNA issues acting as a whistleblower for problems at the DNA unit of the crime lab. And not only was he ignored, but the DA's office denied the memo existed."

Officials at the SFPD and DA's office declined to comment for this story. "While it is clear from your repeated inquiries that you would like to be provided with more information, we do not have any additional records or information that can be provided without breaching the work product and confidentiality guidelines that allow us to meet our mandate as a law enforcement arm of the state and county," DA's spokesperson Erica Derryck said in an e-mail.

The consequences of Harmon's findings, and of their suppression by law enforcement officials, will not be known until he releases all the documents in his possession, including his full memo and e-mails about it that he or Giuntini sent to Godown, Lazar, and Woo. While Harmon has concerns about sharing those records with the press, he says he will readily comply with a subpoena or court order for his e-mails and larger memo on the crime lab from defense lawyers, judges, or other official fact finders.

"I will gladly hand [documentation] over to anyone in a position of authority who is interested in pursuing this," he says. "I'd be happy to testify in court or be deposed under oath."

It seems that he'll get his chance. Defense lawyers say they now plan to subpoena Harmon to learn what he knows. From early indications, what emerges in these legal proceedings could be an embarrassment — to both the DNA lab whose workings Harmon criticized and the law-enforcement officials who have failed to adequately disclose his findings.

Shortly after 9 a.m. on Sept. 2, 2007, Byron Smith — a Visitacion Valley resident and father of five who police believed was tied to gang activity in the Sunnydale projects — ran from three men riding bicycles at the southeastern edge of San Francisco, near the Daly City border. Finding an open garage on Velasco Avenue, Smith ducked inside. Two of the men pursuing him jumped off their bikes, followed him, and executed him with multiple gunshots, including a shot fired directly into the top of his head at point-blank range.

His killers fled the scene. But they left behind physical evidence that police would quickly seize on: their bicycles. Investigators swabbed the bikes' hand-grips for traces of DNA that could identify the murderers. A forensic analysis performed at the SFPD crime lab in Hunters Point revealed that genetic material found on the grips matched the DNA profiles of Joc Wilson and Emon Brown, two suspects arrested for the murder by police. (The third bicyclist was never arrested.)

On Jan. 31, 2008, Boland appeared before a San Francisco grand jury. She had worked for three years at the crime lab, and it was only her third appearance as an expert witness. Swearing to tell the whole truth, she presented the results of her testing: DNA matching that of Brown and Wilson was present on the two bicycles. As an afterthought, she cautioned that a mix of DNA (some of it present in such small quantities as to be useless for identification purposes) had been found on the grips — not an unexpected finding, since bikes sometimes have several users. The grand jury delivered indictments against both suspects, setting them on the path to a protracted murder trial.

What Boland did not tell the grand jury, and what she had not disclosed in the written and signed report on her analysis, might have led to a different outcome. Scrutiny of her methods and test samples would later reveal that the much of the DNA present on the bike grips came from neither Brown nor Wilson, but from a third, unidentified man. The predominance of this "major" profile could have had an impact on the murder investigation. Assuming it did not come from an incidental source (such as a police officer or storage clerk handling the evidence), the DNA sample could have implicated another murder suspect.

Boland, for reasons that have never been made entirely clear, was uninterested in this lead. Instead, she stopped short once she had partial genetic matches to the two men police believed had committed the crime. When she testified in December 2009 at the trial of Brown and Wilson (who were charged with the murder of Smith and another man, Brandon Perkins, in August 2007), she came under withering questioning. Brown's defense lawyer, Tony Tamburello, pressed her on why she had not sought a match for the major DNA source in the computerized libraries of violent felons' genetic profiles to which she had access.

About The Author

Peter Jamison


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