Unreported DNA stirs doubt over conviction

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November 16, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Twenty-three-year-old Melissa Stefanski was killed by a bullet fired within two centimeters of her head in an alley in Brooklyn. Within months, police identified a suspect, ex-boyfriend Randy Golden; he was convicted this year of first-degree murder and is serving a sentence of life plus eight years in prison.

But neither the prosecutor nor Golden's attorney knew that a city crime lab technician had clipped fingernails from Stefanski's body, checked them for DNA and found a match to another criminal - a close friend of Stefanski's and a known gang member.

The discovery of new evidence in Golden's case comes after the crime lab acknowledged a string of problems that led to the director's firing last summer. Police revealed that in several cases, DNA samples had been contaminated by lab workers' genetic material, and in at least 10 more - including the Stefanski investigation - police did not follow up on crime scene evidence containing a criminal's DNA. The Baltimore Sun obtained the list of 10 cases through a public information act request.

Police say they did not follow up because the evidence was deemed irrelevant to the case. But legal experts say the DNA match was crucial to Golden's defense.

"The detective may deem the DNA hit irrelevant because they think they know who did it - that's what we call tunnel vision," said William C. Thompson, chairman of the department of criminology, law and society at the University of California Irvine. "But it may be extremely relevant for a defense attorney trying to construct an alternative theory of the case. The best thing is to err on the side of disclosure and openness. Otherwise, things look terrible later."

Prosecutors declined to comment on Golden's case. But Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said the revelations of crime lab problems are forcing her office to re-examine prosecutions.

"We're finding out about things we did not know about," she said. "There is now a whole movement to try to make sure that everything is operating in the way that it should be operating. We're now putting in a procedure for DNA hits that involves prosecutors. We're trying to do better, but we're getting caught in lapses."

Golden is appealing his conviction, but currently has no lawyer. His attorney in the trial, Maureen O'Leary, declined to comment for this article other than to say that Golden has always maintained his innocence and that the public defender's office would pursue "every legal remedy" for him.

"Ultimately, all of the released information, as it has opened up, raises significant questions," Patrick Kent, forensics chief for the state public defender's office, said of the unreported DNA in this case and others. "We're going to engage in zealous and vigorous research and, if necessary, litigation, in order to make sure the resolutions of these cases have been just."

Baltimore police spokesman Sterling Clifford declined to comment on specific cases. But he wrote in an e-mail that the unreported DNA hits in the 10 cases were not followed up because "detectives concluded that the DNA came from non-probative evidence." Jessamy has deemed that conclusion premature.

Prosecutors dropped charges years ago in several of those cases. In two cases, no one has been charged, and in some other cases, the new evidence appears to be irrelevant.

Byron L. Warnken, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said appellate courts have placed the burden on prosecutors to know "what all of their officers have," even if it means reviewing detectives' notes and files, to ensure that nothing has been missed. Recent trial rule changes in Maryland have emphasized that responsibility.

"What the Supreme Court has said since 1963 is that any evidence that may be exculpatory, or helpful to the defendant, that is held by anybody on the team - the prosecutor or any police officer or any government employee working with those people - has got to be turned over" to the defense, Warnken said.

In Golden's case, the nail clippings were among the few pieces of physical evidence investigators had. The prosecution presented a bullet the medical examiner extracted from the victim's skull, but police never recovered the murder weapon.

Golden, a 19-year-old Bloods member, was convicted on the account of a young, drug-addicted prostitute who testified that she witnessed the murder. She was a friend of the man whose DNA was found on Stefanski's fingernails.

Three other people - two of whom were Stefanski's sisters - provided circumstantial evidence, testifying that Golden had implied in the days before Stefanski's death that he intended to kill her. One of those people testified that Stefanski was selling "Crips' drugs right under Randy's nose for spite."

But the eyewitness' testimony was so important that jurors listened to a recording of it a second time before reaching a verdict.

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