Lawyers e-Journal

Thursday, Jun. 21, 2007

Headline of the week: Can attorneys trust evidence produced by the Medical Examiner’s Office or the State Police Crime Lab?

We would like to hear from our members on the following story. What are your thoughts? E-mail headlines with your ideas, and look for member feedback in upcoming e-Journals.  

This week the legal community witnessed the involuntary manslaughter conviction of twin brothers accused of beating a 19-year-old to death after a July Fourth celebration. Prosecutors had initially pursued manslaughter charges but upgraded them to murder when the medical examiner told them in 2005 that the victim died of a brain injury he suffered as a result of the beating. But last month, after the examiner, Dr. William M. Zane, said he made a mistake in his ruling, prosecutors reduced the murder charges against the brothers to manslaughter.

The state medical examiner's office is under scrutiny by the Patrick administration and an outside consultant after numerous problems were discovered in its operation, including: misplacing the body of a Cape Cod man who was mistakenly buried in another man's grave and had to be dug up; sending the wrong set of eyes for testing during an autopsy; and the misidentification of a fire victim's body, which was later cremated.

Also under review is the State Police Crime Lab, which mishandled DNA test results in about two-dozen unsolved sexual assault cases, failing to report positive DNA matches before the statute of limitations ran out. In another eight cases, the statute expired because the lab took too long to load profiles of crime scene DNA into the database.

Furthermore, Robert Pino, the administrator of the DNA database, allegedly prepared four reports about near-matches between DNA profiles of convicted felons and crime scene DNA, apparently to alert law enforcement officials that a relative of a convict might have committed the crime. He allegedly reported two of those near matches incorrectly as perfect matches to law enforcement officials, although no one was wrongly arrested.

In addition, the State Police collected DNA profiles of 12 people convicted of misdemeanors, even though state law limits the database to convicted felons.

What does this portend for criminal prosecutions in Massachusetts? Can prosecutors or defense attorneys present their cases confident that the evidence produced by either of these entities is solid? Will appellate courts be flooded with appeals based on potentially faulty lab or medical examiner results?

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