Defense Needs DNA, Too

Freeing forensic science from the pressures of prosecutorial bias


A "nightmare" that took them to "hell and back" is how the three former Duke University lacrosse players described the nearly 400 days they spent accused of raping a stripper at a party.

Over a year later, all charges against them have been dropped; ethics charges have been filed against the abusive prosecutor who withheld DNA evidence that would have exonerated the young men long ago; and the North Carolina attorney general is now calling for a law that would allow the state's Supreme Court "to remove a case" from a prosecutor in circumstances like this.

But these Duke athletes aren't the first people to be wrongly accused, nor are they the first victims of a politically motivated prosecutor. Their ordeal demonstrates that we need to make forensic-science services, including DNA testing, available to defense and prosecution teams equally.

In March 2006, Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong charged three members of the Duke lacrosse team with rape. Then, Nifong and Brian Meehan, director of the private DNA lab Nifong used, agreed to withhold the potentially exculpatory evidence in the alleged victim's rape kit; it contained DNA from more than one unidentified man, but not from any of the Duke students.

The life-altering injustices suffered by the affluent white defendants in this case are precisely the sort of injustices suffered regularly by many of America's less privileged citizens.

DNA is no magic bullet of truth when the testers are aligned unambiguously with the prosecution. During the testimony in which it was revealed that Nifong and Meehan had agreed to hide the DNA evidence, Meehan referred to Nifong as "my client." Instead of serving the truth, Meehan's forensics lab was helping its "client," the prosecutor.

When forensic scientists work exclusively for the prosecution, we should expect errors and abuse. Using post-conviction DNA evidence, the Innocence Project has helped exonerate nearly 200 people wrongly convicted of crimes. A study of the first 86 such cases, published in the journal Science, found faulty forensics played a role in almost two-thirds of those convictions.

The time has come to free forensic science from the pressures of prosecutorial bias. To that end, crime labs should become independent of police and prosecutors, and public defenders should be given greater access to forensic advice and testing. Crime labs should be independent, operating under the supervision of an officer of the court, who would be responsible for assigning forensic evidence to laboratories and ensuring that all crime labs in the system are following proper scientific procedures.

Roger Koppl is author of a forthcoming Reason Foundation study on forensics and director of the Institute for Forensic Science Administration at Fairleigh Dickinson University. This article originally appeared in the New York Post.

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