The DNA laboratory in New York City has emerged as a pioneer in analyzing DNA from crime scenes. Over the past twenty-years, the office has developed two techniques which went beyond the FBI’s capability and almost made it to CSI-strength. As chatter about the agency’s work grew, the lab began processing DNA supplied by the NYPD and out of state jurisdictions. Some, far away like Montana and Texas, were willing to pay $1,100 for each sample.
Today, the DNA examination techniques themselves are coming under the microscope. Scientists are opening questioning the test’s validity, and a previous lab leader was dismissed for criticizing one way. Even a former member of the State Commission on Forensic Science has said he was wrong when he approved the methodology.
A conference of defense attorneys has requested the NY State inspector general’s office to start an hearing into the application of the debated techniques used in thousands of criminal cases. While the IG does not have control over the courts, any flaws found with the DNA study could trigger a cascade of litigation. Former sentences could be reviewed, and outcomes changed if flawed evidence is determined to have caused a discrepancy at trial.
The NY Legal Aid Society got together with the Federal Defenders of New York in telling the state’s medical examiners that “negligent conduct, undermining the integrity of its forensic DNA testing” should be reviewed.”
As well as persons sentenced using the techniques, many offenders might have preferred to plead guilty when they were informed prosecutors held DNA confirmation. These cases face high barriers to getting new trials.
Throughout it all, the ME’s office is standing by its chemistry. Timothy Kupferschmid, the chief of laboratories, told a press conference that procedures were well-tested and solid and compared the switch in methodologies to a car upgrade.
“Just because we’re switching to a brand-new model, I mean, our old pickup truck ran fabulous, but my new truck is better,” said Kupferschmid.
One case hanging in the balance originated from the attack on Taj Patterson in December 2013. A crowd of Hasidic males jumped Patterson, an African-American student and prosecutors imputed the attack on a Hasidic club which patrols Patterson’s neighborhood.
Six days later, law enforcement located one of Patterson’s sneakers in a nearby room and sent it to the DNA lab. A lab technician swabbed the heel and obtained 97.9 picograms of DNA. A single picogram is one-trillionth of a gram.
Mayer Herskovic was the only person to stand trial as the DNA on Patterson’s shoe was pivotal in the case. The specimen had Patterson’s DNA, and the lab estimated the DNA belonged to Herskovic — a young father who worked in the community and had no prior criminal history. No additional physical proof connected Herskovic to the offense, and he was not observed on monitoring video. Regardless, he was convicted of gang assault and sentenced to four years behind bars. He appealed.
Herskovic’s sentence stayed during the appeal process. His attorney, Donna Aldea, intends to argue that others in the population were never tested. The “others” being the close-knit group of Hasidic Jews who would share many of the same ancestors — and much of the same DNA.
Mr. Herskovic’s case is a poster child for how DNA evidence might be manufactured out of thin air and how statistics can be manipulated,” said Aldea.