DNA lab chief sure he'll pass the test

October 17, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Lanky and bespectacled, prone to slipping jargon like "polymorphism" and "heterozygosity" into conversation, Francis A. Chiafari comes off as a grown-up version of the kid who always took first prize in the school science fair.

Asked whether he wore a pocket protector during his days as a science whiz at Perry Hall High School, Baltimore's new DNA gumshoe smiles self-consciously before answering: "No, but I did have a calculator strapped to my belt."

These days, though, the 33-year-old molecular geneticist finds himself on the other end of the microscope.

He is the DNA lab supervisor for Baltimore Rh Typing Laboratory Inc. And since the company won a contract to perform DNA tests for Baltimore criminal cases -- wresting the work from a North Carolina company with a winning record in city courts and underbidding a Maryland lab involved in the O. J. Simpson case -- some prosecutors are wondering whether the change will be worth the savings.

They wonder how well Mr. Chiafari will transform his science-speak into a language Baltimore jurors can comprehend and trust. And there's the matter of the company's limited experience in forensic DNA work.

One city prosecutor experienced in DNA cases flatly states: "I'm nervous." Mr. Chiafari chuckled, and said he's not nervous. "We will demonstrate to them what we can do," he said. "We have no doubt that we can do it."

Baltimore Rh is a nonprofit corporation formed in 1945 by a group of prominent city physicians to screen pregnant women and their babies for Rh disease, a blood ailment. The company also did paternity studies. Company officials believe it is the oldest paternity testing lab in the nation.

The company has provided testing for paternity cases in Baltimore courts for decades. It does similar work for six Maryland counties and for six other states. Its expertise has evolved from blood testing to more sophisticated serology work to genetic testing.

Forensic DNA testing identifies a suspect's unique genetic code through analysis of hair, blood, skin or semen samples. That result is compared with a sample taken from a crime scene.

Genetics began playing a role in Baltimore criminal justice in 1987, when DNA evidence was collected in the slaying of an elderly woman.

Since then, city prosecutors sometimes used the FBI lab, growing accustomed to the polished testimony of federal agents. They also recall the days when DNA cases went to Cellmark Diagnostics, a Montgomery County lab whose

scientists' courtroom presentations are described by one defense attorney as "a Nova program coming in against you."

Cellmark, which has grabbed headlines for its role in the Simpson murder case, is the lab of choice for authorities in Howard and Anne Arundel counties. The company bid on city contracts in 1992 and 1994, but its price tag was more than four times higher than the low bidder's.

In 1992, Baltimore Rh made the low bid for the city's first contract on forensic DNA testing, but its bid was rejected after police crime lab scientists said the company lacked sufficient experience. That contract went to Genetic Design Inc., a North Carolina company.

City prosecutors give Genetic Design high marks for its work -- both in the lab and on the witness stand.

But when that contract expired this year, Baltimore Rh submitted a bid that charges the city $16,500 for an anticipated 44 cases with three samples apiece. Genetic Design bid $44,220; Cellmark Diagnostics bid $72,600.

Baltimore Rh could bid so low because it is a nonprofit lab and, being locally based, had lower travel and shipping expenses, said Terry Houtz, manager of genetic testing.

City police officials said they had "no real input" into whether Baltimore Rh, a company rejected two years ago, would get the new contract. Thomas M. Muller, director of the city police laboratory division, said the company met the purchasing department's bid specifications this year because it met national standards for forensic DNA labs.

"Obviously, we have two years more experience," Mr. Chiafari said. "Everybody has to get into the business from the bottom up."

He added that his lab is undergoing independent proficiency testing. The "probes" used by the lab to establish DNA patterns and the population database used to determine the odds of a match -- two factors frequently challenged in court -- meet standards, said Dr. Paul E. Ferrara, chairman of the accreditation board for the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.

Baltimore prosecutors who handle DNA cases got their first look at Mr. Chiafari in August, when they went to a building at the corner of Franklin and Eutaw streets, at the western edge of downtown. There, at the Baltimore Rh lab, they met their new expert witness on DNA.

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