Let The Dna Wars Begin

The case against O.J. Simpson has always been built on circumstantial evidence. Sure, it was important for the state to try to establish that Simpson had the inclination -- he was a wife abuser -- and the opportunity to commit the double murders. But reams of words and seven dismissed jurors later, all that reply mounted to huge gobs of throat clearing. This week the state's case finally moves to its heart: the DNA blood tests that prosecutors say will most directly, and incontrovertibly, link Simpson to the murders of his ex-wife and her friend. Ronald Goldman. Lacking eyewitnesses and a weapon. the state must win The DNA Wars decisively for the jury to convict an icon like Simpson.

The war will be fought principally by four ultra-aggressive layers considered among the foremost expels in the field. "We have the gladiators from both sides of the DNA wars," said Myrna Raeder. a DNA specialist at Southwestern Law School. For the state, prosecutors Rockne Harmon and George (Woody) Clarke will argue that, as Clarke says, "this technique doesn't make mistakes." Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the duo of DNA defense lawyers from New York, will push the theme that "contamination" in the LAPD's blood-collection procedure -- if not outright tampering in the lab-rendered the DNA testing virtually worthless. In an interview last week Neufeld described himself and his partner as defenders of civil liberties. "We're urging legal and scientific reforms of forensic science, which is frequently an oxymoron."

Although forensic DNA typing has been involved in about 24,000 legal cases in the United States since 1987, it remains controversial. Scheck and Neufeld can take much of the credit, or blame, for that, having launched the first notable courtroom challenge to DNA in a 1989 murder ease in New York. They got the DNA results thrown out on grounds that the laboratory allegedly botched the work; later the defendant admitted his guilt.

Prosecutors don't like Scheck and Neufeld, because they're relentless and smart courtroom operators. But Harmon has his detractors too. Many defense lawyers loathe him for rough tactics discrediting their experts; Simpson's lawyers are trying to have Judge Lance Ito cite him for allegedly spying on their witnesses. Shrugs Harmon, "If I have [intimidated expert witnesses] there must be something wrong with what they want to say."

The jury got a taste of DNA results last week, Gregory Matheson, a forensic chemist for the LAPD, testified that DNA testing found that blood under Nicole Simpson's fingernails was consistent with her own-not that of some unknown assailant, as the defense had suggested. The prosecution's main DNA witnesses will be scientists from the labs that did the testing: Cellmark Diagnostics in Maryland and California Department of Justice labs. The jury will get a bewildering lesson in two types of DNA testing: Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism (RFLP). According to Harmon, about 70 percent of the blood was tested using PCR, which requires smaller samples but is considered less definitive than RFLP. With either test, the witnesses will say testing revealed that blood found at the crime scene matched Simpson's DNA and that blood found on Simpson's sock, his Ford Bronco and on a glove found at his house was consistent with Nicole's, Goldman's or a mixture. Even if the cops did an imperfect job of collecting the blood, says prosecutor Clarke, "DNA is DNA"--it won't falsely implicate Simpson.

That will sound awfully incriminating, at least until the defense gets its chance to attack. It will challenge the way the state calculates the probability of a match. It will also contend that the mixture of blood from different parties can invalidate results. The testimony may turn tedious and reminiscent of a college chemistry course. For a while, Court TV may sound like Sunrise Semester, but really, those are American Gladiators swinging away.

TRIAL SCORECARDp> We skipped the scorecard last week, but for those keeping track here are the gavels awarded in absentia: 2 for the prosecution, 3 for the defense, and a record high of 4 to Judge Lance ("Proceed") Ito and his new tough-love approach. Last week was a snoozer, literally. On a scale of 1 to 5 gavels, here's the flash judgment:

Finally, a solid prosecution witness in LAPD crime-lab chemist Gregory Matheson -- never mind that his lab is cheesy. A.D,A. Hank Goldberg knows his stuff but must raise his voice or risk another sleeping juror.

Somnolent, too. Either the team brings back Barry Scheck or distributes amphetamines to the courtroom. But the conspiracy plot thickens. What really happened to 1.5 milliliters of O.J.'s blood?

Keep the pedal to the metal. Maybe now this trial will end before the Rose Bowl. Biggest threat now is the jury. Another juror down, only five more to go. And loads of trance-inducing DNA testimony yet to come.

Let The Dna Wars Begin | News