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Legal Learning: Is DNA evidence reliable?

James Manahan

The March issue of Readers Digest has a shocking story about how DNA evidence almost got an innocent man convicted of murder.

The murder victim was Raveesh Kumra, 66, killed about midnight on Nov. 29, 2012, in his Silicon Valley home by robbers. Under his fingernail the police found the DNA of Lukis Anderson, a 26-year-old homeless alcoholic. He was in their database because of a prior felony conviction. Anderson was arrested and charged with capital murder.

As it happened, Anderson had been taken to a hospital three hours earlier that night in a state of extreme intoxication. The ambulance paramedics used a pulse oximeter on his finger to measure his oxygen level.

Anderson's public defender noticed in her client's medical records that the paramedics who attended him were the same EMTs who had responded to the scene of the murder that night.

They had apparently used the same finger device to see if the victim was alive. It was concluded that that's how Anderson's DNA got under the victim's fingernail.

The murder charge against Anderson was dropped. The DNA evidence was reliable, but didn't prove guilt in this case.

Just last month in Isanti, Minn., a local businessman, Jerry Westrom, was arrested and charged with a 1993 murder. The FBI had checked the DNA from the crime scene against an online genealogy website and found a possible match with Westrom. They followed him and retrieved a napkin he had thrown away after eating a hot dog — the DNA matched!

"If we don't have a match, we don't have a case," Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said after Westrom was charged.

Can there be any explanation other than "guilty as charged?"

Cold case detectives are increasingly hitting pay dirt by using genealogy websites. Last spring, evidence on one website led to the capture of the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, now accused of killing 12 people and raping 45 in California in the 1970s and 1980s.

"Genetic genealogy has incredible power for human identification," said CeCe Moore, chief genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs. "It's revolutionary (for law enforcement). There's really no reason for there to be serial killers or serial rapists anymore. We should be able to identify them much more quickly and stop them from victimizing people."

In the past year, Moore said about 50 cold cases have been solved nationwide using public genealogy websites.

In April 1993, Sophie Sergie was murdered in Alaska. DNA from the crime scene was recently checked against a genealogy website and there was a link to an aunt of Steven Downs, 44, a nurse in Auburn, Maine.

Downs had been a student in Alaska in 1993 and was interviewed by police at the time of the murder, but there was no DNA testing at that time. He was arrested in February this year and a cheek swab showed an exact match with the original DNA sample. He was arrested and is charged with the murder.

DNA has also been used to exonerate people convicted of crimes they didn't commit. The work of the Innocence Project, founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck, has led to the freeing of more than 362 wrongfully convicted people based on DNA, including 20 individuals who spent time on death row, and the finding of 158 real perpetrators.

It appears that DNA evidence is reliable, but must be used with caution. As Lukis Anderson said when he got out of jail: "There's more that's gotta be looked at than just the DNA. You've got to dig deeper. Reanalyze. Do everything all over again before you say, 'This is what it is.' Because it may not necessarily be so."

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota's Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in the Lake County area, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. He can be reached at jimmanahan@gmail.com or jamesmanahan.com.