Lab issues sure to arise in court

Contaminated evidence is part of murder trial set for October

August 22, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz and Justin Fenton | Julie Bykowicz and Justin Fenton,Sun reporters

Relying on a hit from the state DNA database, Baltimore police arrested a suspect last year in the long-unsolved rape and killing of Lisa Barselou, a 26-year-old who was assaulted and then submerged in the bathtub of her Bolton Hill home in 1989.

Kevin Gerald Robinson is scheduled to stand trial in October.

But the key to the case against Robinson, 42, is DNA, and recent testing revealed that part of the usually unassailable evidence was contaminated by a crime lab employee who left behind his own genetic material, a recurring problem at the Baltimore Police Department crime lab that led to the firing of its director this week.

Robinson's attorney said the lab employee's DNA could prove useful in discrediting the entire case.

"It goes to the lab's overall ability to control contamination," said attorney Nicholas Panteleakis. "If that's contaminated, what else is contaminated?"

Robinson's case is an example of the problems authorities could face as a result of DNA contamination at the lab. In a partial review, police found a dozen instances out of 2,500 where a previously unknown genetic profile turned out to be that of a lab employee.

A more thorough review is pending, said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City state's attorney's office.

Police officials told senior prosecutors that once they have cataloged the DNA of all relevant lab employees, they will compare those profiles to about 6,000 "unknown" DNA samples, she said.

About 65 employee profiles have been developed, Burns said, and prosecutors are unsure how many more employees will submit samples and what the timeline for the review is. The crime lab has been testing DNA since 2001.

"The state's attorney is unclear so far as to the scope of the contamination and its effect on open and closed cases," Burns said.

Sterling Clifford, a police spokesman, confirmed that the staff profiles were still being gathered but said officials are confident the problem has been cornered. He said the employee contamination did not lead to any wrongful convictions.

An initial review by the lab, conducted last Friday, showed that employees had contaminated DNA samples in two court cases, Robinson's and a handgun violation case that ended with a guilty plea in December 2007, the law enforcement sources said.

The other DNA samples reviewed so far were not connected to cases that resulted in arrests, Clifford said.

The contamination came to light when a new DNA supervisor, Rana Santos, realized that swabs of lab employee DNA, collected in 2005, had never been entered into the database.

Clifford has said the discovery could actually help police and prosecutors because evidence that previously contained "unknown genetic material" can now be tied to an employee, rather than potentially misleading jurors about a phantom suspect.

But defense attorneys and forensic experts say the contamination suggests that there could be more widespread issues with testing at the lab, the state's largest and busiest.

"If the quality control practices were so deficient to allow their own DNA in, they've also got problems that would allow cross-contamination involving other suspects," said Janine Arvizu, an Albuquerque-based forensic scientist who audited the lab in 2005, at the request of the state public defender's office, and found significant shortcomings. "They absolutely have the potential to cross-contaminate and wrongfully convict someone."

In the Robinson case, court records indicate that his DNA matched genetic material found inside the victim's body. It appears the lab employee's DNA was on a piece of clothing recovered from the crime scene in 1989 and tested within the past few months.

Panteleakis, the defense attorney, said he would research other potential DNA issues in Robinson's case, such as whether Robinson's sample and genetic material from the victim's body were collected and stored properly.

"Once it's compromised, DNA is no longer fail-proof," he said.

Panteleakis had an in-depth lesson on DNA - and the city crime lab - during the triple-slaying trial of Policarpio Espinoza and Adan Canela. They were accused of slashing the throats of three young children in May 2004 inside the family's Northwest Baltimore apartment.

Panteleakis represented Espinoza in two trials, the second of which ended in convictions and life sentences for both defendants. The prosecution relied almost entirely upon DNA evidence, and many of the items from the crime scene contained not only DNA from Canela and Espinoza, but also "unknown" DNA.

Their convictions are on appeal, and Panteleakis said he would be considering whether to add concerns about DNA to the list of appellate issues.

"I know their work has been kind of sub-par in the past," Panteleakis said of the crime lab.

In an interview Wednesday, the former crime lab director, Edgar Koch, said the failure to enter staff DNA profiles into the database, after collecting them in 2005, was a mix-up by a supervisor who is no longer with the department.

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