Regional judicial conference starts with workshop about DNA in court Judges from Maryland, Delaware receive joint training for first time

October 29, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The cost for the Maryland-Delaware judicial conference on genetics in Ocean City this week is $60,000. An incorrect figure ++ appeared in an article in yesterday's editions of The Sun.

The Sun regrets the errors.

They thought about calling the opener of this morning's regional judicial conference in Ocean City -- a seminar on genetics in the courtroom -- "DNA 101."

"Course 101 is too advanced for judges," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge John F. Fader II, one of three people leading the seminar. "Ours is 50 1/2 ."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

To remedy that lack of knowledge, Maryland and Delaware judges will get a two-day crash course on DNA and its use in court cases today and tomorrow.

"It's brand new stuff to most people, let alone judges," said Dr. Franklin M. Zweig, president of the Einstein Institute for Science, Health and the Courts, which is helping to run the conference.

The $600,000 conference marks the first time Maryland and Delaware judges have held joint training. With about 350 judges expected to attend, Zweig called it the largest regional judicial conference on genetics.

Courthouses in Maryland will be mostly empty of judges, today and tomorrow.

"Now, more and more, DNA comes up in court. You have to be fully educated to the DNA process to competently represent these clients. It's a big challenge for the lawyers and judges," said Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Pamela L. North.

North presided over this spring's retrial and second murder conviction of Scotland E. Williams, and will be on a panel discussing how judges can help a jury understand advanced scientific information.

"With many people in the legal profession, there is a science phobia," said Michele M. Nethercott, assistant Anne Arundel County public defender who specializes in the use of DNA in criminal trials. A decade ago, genetic evidence was uncommon, she said. Now, "this is a part of the legal landscape."

She was one of three lawyers for Williams, convicted of murdering a couple in their home outside Annapolis and sentenced to life in prison. Pretrial hearings focused on the admissibility of genetic evidence, which was used to place Williams in the victims' waterfront house. The Court of Appeals overturned Williams' first conviction and death sentence in part because the defense was barred from probing too deeply into the DNA evidence.

Nethercott said it helps if judges understand the science, because they are the referee "if you have a defense lawyer saying, 'I need access to this,' and a prosecutor who says, 'No, you don't.' "

DNA is playing a role in more than criminal and paternity cases. Employment, insurance discrimination and family cases increasingly hinge on genetic information, said Daniel W. Drell, biologist in the federal Department of Energy's Human Genome Program.

Pub Date: 10/29/98

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