Technical evidence is central to retrial Jurors asked to digest complicated scientific information on DNA

May 24, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The most crucial evidence against murder defendant Scotland E. Williams -- the DNA that prosecutors say places him inside the victims' Annapolis home -- also is the most disjointed and bewildering, requiring lawyers on each side to decipher it in their favor for the jury.

Some of the 12 jurors and four alternates have looked confused as experts dueled over the scientific minutiae during 12 days of testimony. In closing arguments expected Tuesday, lawyers will have to give laboratory details a context -- one that depends on whether the prosecution or defense attorneys are talking.

Prosecutors contend that the DNA found on a drinking glass and in hairs from the weekend home of Jose E. Trias, 49, and Julie N. Gilbert, 48, bears a remarkable resemblance to Williams' genetic material.

The defense has conceded that Maryland National Bank accurately photographed Williams, 35, of Arnold behind the wheel of Gilbert's car using her bank card.

"If you want to confuse a jury, this is the type of subject matter that lends itself to confusion," said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, who is seeking the death penalty for Williams.

"There is a saturation point where jurors just fog over," said Jerome E. Deise Jr., former chief of capital defense for the Maryland Public Defender Service and now a professor at the University of Maryland Law School.

Much of the detailed scientific testimony is the result of the 1996 Court of Appeals opinion that overturned Williams' first convictions and death sentence in the May 1994 execution-style slayings of Trias and Gilbert.

Maryland's highest court ruled in part that the defense was not given enough leeway to challenge the state's DNA evidence.

This time, jurors and Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Pamela L. North must be quick studies of new terminology and technology -- chromatograms, heteroplasmy, DQ-Alpha polymarker system and such.

Interrupting the difficult testimony have been dozens of bench conferences -- arguments made to the judge away from the jury. On Friday, 15 bench conferences were held. But other days have been nearly consumed by them.

Was the Cellmark Diagnostics Inc. laboratory in Germantown, where some of the DNA evidence for police and prosecutors was analyzed, really contaminated? And if it was -- an incomplete contamination log is a centerpiece of the defense case -- how does that affect this case?

In the newer field of mitochondrial DNA testing, is it reasonable for the FBI to allow up to 10 percent contamination of a sample?

How does that fit with the FBI's conclusion that hairs from Williams' head show the same two genetic mutations as hairs found in the victims' home?

How valid or convincing are statistics showing that only 3.5 percent of African-Americans share certain DNA characteristics that Williams and crime scene evidence share?

Defense experts have testified that the DNA evidence was made unreliable by everything from contamination to the way records are kept. The defense, clearly trying to create doubt, has suggested that the defendant's brother, Clayton Williams, or a man convicted in a Baltimore murder may have been involved in killing the two lawyers.

Prosecution experts have said the occasional samples of evidence that were inconclusive are irrelevant or can be explained.

Other physical evidence the prosecutors are relying on includes a shoe print found in the home that police testified appears to be Williams'.

The jury probably will get to figure out all of this Tuesday when closing arguments are presented.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.