Jury in Harris trial gets lesson in evidence collection

Crime scene items studied for possible DNA links to defendants

September 24, 2010|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

The case against three men standing trial in the death of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris continued Friday with the testimony of a police crime lab specialist.

Richard Remy, a 31-year-old criminalist in serology at the Police Department's crime lab, spent hours on the witness stand providing compelling and even cheerful testimony on matters often considered tedious and arcane. His command of the facts earned him a degree of deference.

"I compliment you — it's beyond thorough the amount of work you've put into this," Jason E. Silverstein, who represents defendant Charles Y. McGaney, told the witness, who had explained at considerable length how he obtained samples of skin cells and other microscopic matter from several items found at and near the scene of the Sept. 20, 2008, fatal shooting in a Northeast Baltimore shopping center. The evidence was then sent for DNA analysis, and prosecutors intend to prove to the jury that it provides crucial links to the three defendants.

Before the trial began, the defense lawyers had tried to have the DNA evidence disallowed, but Baltimore Circuit Judge David Ross, who was brought in from retirement to oversee the case, ruled against them.

Wearing surgical gloves, Remy, who has been with the Police Department five years and recently became the crime lab's deputy manager of quality assurance, showed the jury how he had taken samples from a Halloween mask, a stolen purse and a jacket. Holding the mask in front of the jury, Remy said the inside of such a mask is where most "probative" evidence would normally reside.

"I swabbed the nose and mouth, because that's where you breathe from, and skin cells can be expelled through breath," Remy said under questioning by Assistant State's Attorney Cynthia M. Banks. Similarly, he said, he vacuumed the cuffs and collar of the blue-and-black coat "because the cuffs and neck are more likely to come into contact with skin."

Displaying a black purse stolen from a jazz club where the shooting took place, Remy pulled out three bandannas — two of them decorated with dollar signs, the third purple and white — a silver money clip and a wallet, all items apparently stuffed into the purse before it was tossed into a trash can on a street nearby.

One of the bandannas had been tied with a knot and Remy said he had paid "special attention to the knot because that's more likely to hold skin cells." The faces of all three robbers had been covered during the incident.

Also in the purse was a pair of surgical gloves that prosecutors say had been worn by one of the robbers. Remy said he swabbed the palm area of the gloves for skin cells, "making sure to avoid the fingertips to preserve possible fingerprints."

He described taking swabs from a wine bottle and a plastic cup found in the center console of Harris' Toyota. Finally, Remy said, he processed "oral swabs" taken from the defendants' cheeks after their arrests and sent for DNA analysis and comparison to other evidence.

It was not all smooth sailing for Friday's witness. Jerome Bivens, who represents defendant Jerome Williams, spent considerable time questioning Remy about the crime lab's procedures, and implied that the work there might be sloppy. Bivens asked several times whether any of the technicians ever sneezed on evidence, for instance, an act that could render the item unreliable for identification of a suspect. "It's common sense not to sneeze on the evidence," Remy responded.

Bivens also wanted to know why wearing a face mask was optional when studying evidence. "I didn't use a face mask in this case," Remy said, "but on the other hand, I didn't sneeze all over everything either."

The lawyer persisted: "If somebody screws up and puts something in the wrong envelope, that's a problem, right?"

Remy frowned at the hypothesis. "That shouldn't happen," he said finally.

Having failed to land any real punches, the lawyers seemed to relax, and Silverstein gave the witness another figurative pat on the back. "You've testified for most of the day today, and you clearly know what you're talking about," he said. "I don't think anyone would disagree with that."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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