A crime-lab reporting error could impact hundreds of Columbus cases
Defendants count on criminal defense attorneys when freedom is at stake
No one wants to end up in the hot seat. But when it comes down to guilt and innocence, we all count on a fair trial, right? In the case of a Columbus crime lab, a reporting oversight may have tipped the scales for hundreds of convicts in Columbus.
The Columbus Dispatch reported Police Chief Kim Jacobs’ announcement in late April that crime-lab technicians didn’t always include the proper statistical weight in DNA testing reports from the summer of 2009 until last September.
Statistical weight, the Dispatch explained, shows the probability that DNA in evidence belongs to a particular person. Because unrelated people can share similar genetic patterns, statistical weight is needed to determine whether others in the population could also be a potential match.
Without that statistical weight, the results can be next to meaningless. In fact, if a suspect’s DNA matches the DNA found on a gun, for example, the likelihood that he or she put it there could be as great as 1 in 1,000,000,000 or as little as 1 in 1,000.
Not having the statistical weight is a major omission. “Just saying there’s a DNA match is not a very strong statement until you give those additional details,”Larry Mueller, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at the University of California-Irvine who has studied DNA testing for more than 20 years, told the Dispatch.
Even in cases of plea agreements, DNA evidence can have a big impact, said defense attorney Kort Gatterdam. Gatterdam represented one of the homicide defendants who pleaded guilty in Columbus and could be affected by the reporting confusion.
DNA is often viewed as more reliable than witness testimony and could push a defendant to take a plea deal with a reduced sentence rather than risk a trial.
However, Mueller said, judges, juries and attorneys can be overly confident with DNA match results.
“They can jump to a conclusion that there’s no doubt about who left that DNA when there might be some,” he said.
The Ohio appeals process
When a jury or judge delivers a decision in a criminal trial, the defendant has the right to appeal the decision. Many criminal cases that go to trial move on to the appeals process. Like the cases affected by the Columbus crime-lab, this is often as a result of new evidence in the case.
Appellate law involves the appeals process, meaning a higher court reviews the lower court’s judgment. Unlike other forms of legal proceedings, in appellate law there is no discovery. The appellate record is limited to the facts presented during the original trial. In Ohio, appeals are presented to a three-judge appellate panel. Because appeals are decided almost entirely on the written briefs, a compelling appellate brief and a powerful oral argument are the vital tools of a successful legal advocate’s appeal.
Turn to a criminal defense attorney who will fight for your appeal
Police and prosecutors—and even judges—make errors that can cost you your freedom. Yavitch & Palmer’s criminal defense attorneys are devoted to criminal appeals for those unjustly convicted. If you or someone you care about is a facing a prison sentence or the death penalty, come to professionals who have pursued successful appeals for many Ohioans in desperate circumstances.