In a courtroom-turned-classroom, the role of the professor was played by Dr. Robin Cotton, molecular biologist.
Lacking only a chalkboard -- a magic marker and an easel holding large sheets of paper would have to do -- the professor covered the ins and outs of "DNA fingerprinting" for the benefit of her students seated in the jury box.
"It looks like light, red, cotton-like stuff that floats to the bottom of the tube," she said, trying to explain what happens when scientists use chemicals to isolate deoxyribonucleic acid, the subcellular material that determines an individual's makeup.
Restriction enzymes and gene probes, autoradiograms and artifacts. Band shifting. Southern blotting. These $10 words, the language of forensic DNA testing, were covered in a lesson that was by turns a fascinating glimpse into the building blocks of life and, judging by the yawns and droopyeyelids from some jurors and spectators, as tranquilizing as the driest of lectures.
In any case, it's all more than an academic exercise to Michael James Jackson. The 30-year-old Shady Side man is charged with the brutal sexual assault of his former sister-in-law, and how well the jurors learn their science lesson may decide whether Jackson receives the life sentence prosecutors are seeking.
Not that the jury -- a panel including two accountants, two retirees, a toll collector and a custodian -- was alone in trying to absorb this science lesson. Off-duty prosecutors and defense attorneys dropped in to scribble notes throughout the trial last week, looking for tips on how tohandle a case involving the controversial technology that has been called the greatest advance in forensic science since the traditional fingerprint.
What's controversial about DNA fingerprinting is the claim that it can link a suspect to a crime scene with near-certainty. After Dr. Cotton described the process, Amy Corey, a laboratory supervisor for a Prince George's County-based testing company, describedhow tests showed DNA extracted from the Shady Side man's blood "matched" the DNA extracted from semen stains found on the victim's nightgown.
The defense countered with Dr. Ronald T. Acton, a professor from the University of Alabama at Birmingham medical school's microbiology department, who said his analysis of the DNA tests showed no match.
It seems there is a question about whether some faint marks onthe semen sample autoradiograms -- the graphic representations of a person's genetic makeup that resemble a supermarket universal bar code -- are bands that would exonerate the defendant or are merely artifacts, insignificant traces of unknown, light-weight matter.
Which expert to believe? That question will be decided by the jury.
But prosecutors are loathe to place their case on a single piece of evidence, however gee-whiz, 21st-century, technologically impressive it may be. To that end, Assistant State's Attorney Ronald M. Naditch told the jury the blood and semen samples also share a rare enzyme.
Also, the prosecutor said he will present to the jury additional, circumstantial evidence, including claims that Jackson explained an injuredhand days after the assault by saying he had punched someone in the teeth. And the victim's son may identify Jackson as the assailant; the victim has testified it was too dark to identify her attacker.
When the trial opened last Tuesday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, Naditch told the jury Jackson kicked in the front door of a house in the 1200 block Poplar Avenue, Shady Side, and ran upstairs to sexually assault a 27-year-old woman who was home with her two young children on Feb. 19, 1988.
The victim, who now lives in Florida, testified last week she was in her second-floor bedroom when she awoke to the sound of someone breaking into her home. She said a man ran upstairs and then told her he was going to rape her.
"He grabbed me by my throat and he slammed me up against the wall," said the woman. "Hekept hitting me and bashing me in my face, and my children were screaming. He threw me on the ground and said if I didn't do what he said, he was going to kill my children."
She said she told the man shehad AIDS, but he then demanded that she perform oral sex on him. Shesaid the man threatened to rape her 4-year-old daughter if she did not comply. She also testified the attack left her bleeding from the ears and she required stitches for a cut on her lip.
The woman saidJackson, of the 1100 block Cedar Avenue, had been married for about two years to her older sister and had for three months in 1983 lived with her and her husband in the house on Poplar Avenue.
Court records show Jackson, while free on $200,000 bond after being charged with the Poplar Avenue attack, was charged with attempted rape and assault in connection with a May 28, 1990, incident in Shady Side. In thatcase, a woman told police a man burst into her home in the 1700 block Lake Avenue at 3:10 a.m., punched her in the eye and grabbed her around the neck.