A Shady Side man who had challenged the reliability of forensic DNA testing was convicted yesterday in the sexual assault of his former sister-in-law.
A Circuit Court jury deliberated less than two hoursbefore finding 30-year-old Michael James Jackson guilty on all counts, including first-degree sexual offense and assault with intent to rape.
After the verdict was announced, Assistant State's Attorney Ronald M. Naditch termed the introduction of DNA test results into a criminal trial a "double-edged sword." He said the technology can provide dramatic evidence tying a suspect to a crime scene but can also, through varying interpretations of test results, allow a defense attorneyto argue that the results exonerate his client.
In his closing argument yesterday, defense attorney Charles M. Carlson did just that, urging the jury to compare the test results for themselves. But Naditch, in rebuttal, said: "Mr. Carlson is not the DNA expert who testified in these proceedings, and what Mr. Carlson is suggesting is that you become the experts.
"With all due respect," Naditch told the jurors, "there is not one of you with the education and the experience to know what you're looking for."
During the trial, a molecular biologist and a laboratory supervisor from Cellmark Diagnostics, a Prince George's County company and one of the two largest labs in the country performing DNA testing, testified that their tests showed a match between Jackson's blood and semen recovered from the victim's nightgown after the February 1988 attack.
But in his closing argument, Naditch stressed, "This is not a DNA case alone." The prosecutor pointed to tests conducted by a state police lab technician that showed the blood and semen samples also shared a rare enzyme.
And the prosecutor stressed hospital records that revealed Jackson was treated for a hand injury a few days after the attack -- in which the victim, Terry Byington, was punched in the side of the head and the teeth while being forced to perform oral sex -- and that Jackson had provided inconsistent explanations for his injuries.
Naditch also pointed toevidence that he said showed the attacker was familiar with the home, on Poplar Avenue in Shady Side, in which the attack took place. Jackson, who had been married to Byington's sister, had lived in the house for a few months in 1983, testimony showed.
DNA testing has been hailed as a test of unparalleled accuracy. Because of its purportedability to use a trace of blood or semen to link with near-certaintya suspect to a crime scene, the technology has been called the greatest breakthrough in forensic science since the fingerprint. Lawyers agree it is one of the most powerful pieces of evidence that can be presented to a jury.
But questions about the fallibility of the technology have been raised by defense attorneys across the country. In alandmark case, DNA evidence against a Bronx janitor's helper accusedof murdering a pregnant woman was dismissed because of sloppy scientific procedures.
In the Jackson case, the defense presented Dr. Ronald Acton, a professor from the University of Alabama School of Medicine's microbiology department, who said his analysis of the DNA tests performed by Cellmark showed no match. Acton said some faint marks on the semen sample readout are "bands" that would exonerate the defendant. Prosecution witnesses from Cellmark said the marks are merely "artifacts" -- insignificant traces of unknown, lightweight matter.
When the verdict was announced, the victim, her husband and many of her relatives quietly wept. Jackson showed little emotion. His wife, who had testified on his behalf, turned and looked at the victim.
In an interview afterward, Byington said the attack had prompted her and her family to move to Florida four months later. She said she had given up hope authorities would find her attacker until her former brother-in-law, to her shock, emerged as a suspect.
"I didn't have any doubts about DNA testing," Byington said. "I was very impressed by it." She added she would like to see Jackson receive the maximumsentence possible. Her husband, David Byington, said, "He has no reason to be out on the streets. He ought to suffer the rest of his life, too."
Naditch had said he would seek a life sentence for Jackson. After yesterday's verdict, he said he will see how the defense wants to handle a second, pending assault with intent to rape charge before deciding what punishment to seek.
"If I can wrap up both cases with what I consider a satisfactory sentence, I'd like to do that," he said.
Jackson, who has been held without bond since his arrest on the second charge, will face a maximum sentence of life plus 50 years in prison at his sentencing, scheduled for March 28.