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Friday, October 28, 2011

State Appeals Court Upholds Judge's Order Unsealing Secret DNA Lab Memo

Posted By on Fri, Oct 28, 2011 at 1:52 PM


A panel of state appeals-court judges has upheld a San Francisco Superior Court judge's order last month that District Attorney George Gascón release a secret memo describing problems with DNA analysis at the San Francisco Police Department crime lab.

The decision appeared to remove the last barrier for defense lawyers, who have been seeking to access the memo for months. In his ruling last month, Judge Charles Haines stated that the memo contains exculpatory information -- and hinted that it might also contain evidence of criminal behavior or dishonesty by police department employees -- and should be admitted as evidence in a murder case.

The DA's office immediately appealed the decision. But in a terse ruling handed down today, three judges in the first appellate district of the state of California rejected a petition by prosecutors to review and reverse Haines' decision.

"I think it's the right decision," said Deputy Public Defender Bicka Barlow. "We've now had three additional judges besides Judge Haines look at this, and they made the same decision."

Barlow said it is still unclear whether the memo will be entered into

the public record or released under seal, temporarily or permanently, to

defense lawyers.

Reached this afternoon, DA's office spokeswoman Stephanie Ong Stillman said she had not yet heard of the appeals court's decision, and would need to consult with others in the office before commenting.

The memo was authored by Rockne Harmon, a veteran prosecutor and expert on DNA evidence who worked as a consultant for three years in the San Francisco DA's office. In a series of exclusive interviews with SF Weekly, Harmon has said he is disturbed that the memo has been suppressed by the DA's office and believes it should be released to defense lawyers.

Yet the memo has been persistently concealed from the public and defense attorneys by the DA's office since Harmon first revealed its existence in December. In response to early questions from SF Weekly, the DA's office initially went so far as to claim the memo did not exist. This fall it has become an issue in the DA's race, with Gascón's opponents attacking him for a lack of transparency and calling for the document's release.

Harmon says the memo was critical of the methods of Cherisse Boland, supervisor of the crime lab's DNA unit. The Public Defender's Office is seeking the report in the case of James Mayfield, a Bayview church deacon charged with the vicious 1976 murder of a young sculptor, Jenny Read. Boland analyzed the DNA evidence that is the foundation of the case against Mayfield.

After reviewing Harmon's memo under seal, Haines initially said it was not admissible evidence. However, after speaking with Harmon in chambers last month, Haines reversed his own decision in dramatic form, stating that he had not understood the documents' contents until Harmon explained them.

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