Murder trial delayed

Defense for man accused of killing officer can raise issue of tainted DNA evidence at crime lab

August 26, 2008|By Melissa Harris and Julie Bykowicz | Melissa Harris and Julie Bykowicz,melissa.harris@baltsun.com and julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

The trial of a man accused of killing an off-duty Baltimore police officer has been delayed until tomorrow morning so that his defense attorney can prepare to cross-examine the Police Department's DNA section chief about recent reports of evidence contamination.

Yesterday, Judge Timothy Doory told prosecutor Kevin Wiggins to turn over a report by an outside forensics organization, conducted earlier this decade at the request of public defenders who were contesting gunshot residue evidence in another case. That report alleges lapses in quality control at the city crime lab.

Last week, police revealed that lab technicians' own DNA was discovered on crime scene evidence. In a partial review, police found a dozen instances out of 2,500 where an "unknown" DNA profile found in a sample analyzed at the facility turned out to be that of a crime lab employee.

"Some organization did an analysis of their procedures, and I haven't seen that report," said Roland Walker, the defense attorney for Brandon Grimes.

Grimes, 23, is charged in the fatal shooting of Detective Troy Lamont Chesley Sr., 34, as Chesley tried to unlock the front door of his Forest Park apartment in the 4500 block of Fairfax Road after getting off a late shift. Police said Chesley returned fire, wounding Grimes in the leg.

Walker told Doory that the city's crime lab was "changing procedures to incorporate better quality controls, which tells me there's something lacking in their current quality controls."

However, Sterling Clifford, a Police Department spokesman, has not announced any procedural changes other than entering the lab employees' DNA into the database.

Walker said he planned to call his own DNA expert to testify about any lapses at the lab.

Baltimore police told public defenders yesterday that they believe the DNA contamination occurred at crime scenes throughout the city rather than inside the laboratory at police headquarters. The lab includes a mobile unit, which travels to crime scenes.

Lab employees' DNA had not been entered into the DNA database until earlier this month, something that other police agencies said they have been doing for years.

At yesterday's meeting, Baltimore Public Defender Elizabeth Julian said she and Patrick Kent, chief of the public defenders' forensics division, asked to review the case files known to involve contaminated DNA. Julian said they also inquired about how the contamination was discovered and whether lab policies would change because of it.

Rana Santos, the DNA section chief, and Sharon R. Holback, chief of the state's attorney's office's forensics division, said they would research those and other issues and promised to meet with public defenders again in three weeks, Julian said.

Meanwhile, Doory granted Walker until tomorrow to review the report and prepare for the DNA-related testimony. He also denied Walker's requests to declare a mistrial or exclude the DNA evidence altogether.

Citing a gag order in the case, Wiggins declined to comment after yesterday's hearing on what DNA evidence he plans to present to the jury. According to charging documents, however, Grimes left a trail of blood dripping from his leg wound, and a pistol was found "halfway through the blood trail."

After last week's firing of the longtime head of the city crime lab, Edgar Koch, defense attorneys said they expected problems with the lab to surface in court cases. Media coverage of the contamination happened to coincide with the opening week of Grimes' murder trial.

Before releasing the jury, Doory warned them not to look at any media reports or try to "investigate" the reasons for the delay.

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