DNA taint found on gun in officer shooting case

August 28, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,melissa.harris@baltsun.com

A city crime lab employee left his own DNA on the pistol police say was used to kill an off-duty Baltimore detective, indicating that a recently discovered problem with contamination at the lab may be more widespread than officials originally believed.

Evidence from the murder trial of Brandon Grimes was not among the 12 instances city officials identified last week in which lab employees introduced their own DNA into crime evidence. But lab officials testified yesterday that there are thousands of partial strands of unknown DNA in evidence samples - like the one recovered from the pistol in the Grimes case - that must be checked by hand.

The Grimes case is the first in what city defense attorneys expect will be widespread challenges to DNA evidence processed in the Baltimore lab, whose director was fired last week amid concerns about contamination. In a scene that could play out in other trials, Grimes' attorney attempted to use the problems at the lab to broadly impeach physical evidence usually thought to be unassailable.

Rana Santos, technical chief of the lab's DNA section, said she checked the sample in the Grimes case Monday evening after reports of the contamination appeared in the media and she met with Grimes' defense attorney, Roland Walker.

Santos yesterday told jurors hearing Grimes' case that the original 12 cases of contamination, which she discovered Aug. 8, were "not surprising" to her "at all," given the growing sensitivity of DNA technology and the possibility that "simply breathing" could cause it. She also said that labs in other large cities have experienced similar problems.

To help the jury understand, Santos compared the lab to an operating room. No matter how pristine, "patients still come out with infections," Santos said.

Prosecutor Kevin Wiggins also repeatedly asked Santos to explain to the jury that forensic scientists can distinguish people's DNA from one another, even when they are found in the same sample.

"If two people's DNA are mixed, it doesn't equal someone else," Santos said.

But Walker criticized the state for not checking the evidence in Grimes' case as soon as news of the contamination broke, which coincided with the start of Grimes' trial.

"The only way I ever learned about this was from reading it in the newspaper," Walker said.

Grimes was in the middle of a "horribly serious murder trial," yet "nobody bothered to tell the defendant and his lawyer" about the contamination, Walker said.

Walker attempted to raise the issue through all of the DNA expert testimony yesterday, which lasted several hours and included four witnesses. At one point Santos and Walker engaged in a mini-debate over how to describe the contamination, with Walker calling it a "dramatic mistake" and a "serious problem" and Santos responding that it was "not dramatic" and "not a 'serious' problem."

The state's case against Grimes does not rely entirely on DNA evidence. The jury has already heard testimony from two witnesses who place Grimes at the scene of the crime and the pistol in his hand during the 12 hours before the shooting.

Grimes 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 in January 2007. Police said Chesley returned fire, wounding Grimes in the leg.

Sgt. Richard Purtell yesterday testified that Grimes left a trail of blood as he limped from the crime scene and around the block to Westchester Road, where the trail stopped. Police believe Grimes fled the scene in a green Dodge Caravan, driven by his then-girlfriend, Kelly Carter.

Purtell said police called in a bloodhound to trace the trail. The pistol was found halfway through it, according to charging documents.

Yesterday lab employee Jocelyn Carlson testified that DNA collected from blood stains on two leaves and a rock along the blood trail all came from Grimes, as did a blood sample taken from the Westchester Road sidewalk in Northwest Baltimore.

Those samples were not contaminated. In all, at least 12 untainted DNA samples were described to the jury yesterday.

But the weapon police say Grimes used - equipped with a laser-targeting device and a special grip - was not handled as carefully.

Santos said yesterday that technician Victor Meinhardt, who worked in the lab's mobile unit that travels to crime scenes, left his DNA on the grip of the pistol as he dusted it for fingerprints.

The source of other DNA found on the grip could not be determined. DNA experts testified they could rule out Meinhardt, Carter or another passenger in the van, Joshua Morris, as the source, but they couldn't be sure it was Grimes.

As for the contamination, Meinhardt testified: "There's a thousand ways it could have happened. I could have coughed, sneezed or scratched my head."

Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the police department, played down the importance of analyzing partial DNA profiles, like the one found on the pistol grip. Partial DNA profiles, much like partial fingerprints, "are limited in their usefulness," he said.

Santos and Sharon R. Holback, chief of the state's attorney's office's forensics division, have told public defenders that they believe the DNA contamination occurred at crime scenes throughout the city rather than inside the laboratory at police headquarters, according to Baltimore Public Defender Elizabeth Julian.

Julian has asked to review all case files involving contaminated DNA. Santos and Holback promised to meet with her again to go over the issues in three weeks.

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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