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'One chance in millions'

Two high-profile murders in North Dakota are focusing attention on the role DNA can play in cracking criminal cases, but defense attorneys as well as scientists say such evidence has its limits.

Graphic: Matching evidence and suspect

Two high-profile murders in North Dakota are focusing attention on the role DNA can play in cracking criminal cases, but defense attorneys as well as scientists say such evidence has its limits.

Last month, a jury found Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. guilty of kidnapping and murdering Dru Sjodin in part because of DNA analysis that concluded tiny traces of blood in Rodriguez's car came from Sjodin.

Also last month, Moe Maurice Gibbs, of Valley City, N.D., was charged with the murder of Mindy Morgenstern after a DNA sample he provided to authorities was matched to tissue found beneath the victim's fingernails.

After Gibbs' arrest, Fargo police announced DNA evidence from a 2004 sexual assault also tied Gibbs to that crime.

DNA is a powerful law enforcement tool, but only when handled the right way, said Thomas Wahl, a forensic scientist who spent many years with the Las Vegas crime lab.

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"As long as you have human beings working cases, mistakes can be made. But if the process is done the correct way, it's a very reliable scientific method," said Wahl, who is now helping to set up a state-of-the-art DNA laboratory on the campus of North Dakota State University.

The lab, which recently received a $1.4 million grant with the help of North Dakota's congressional delegation, won't be operational for several years.

When ready, the facility will make DNA testing available to overburdened crime labs and defense attorneys.

"Our goal here is to try to implement cutting-edge technology and develop some niches so we can offer services to government crime laboratories as well as the defense community," said Wahl, who came to North Dakota from Las Vegas along with Berch Henry, who will head NDSU's new lab.

Wahl said what goes on in DNA labs bears no resemblance to what TV shows like "CSI" portray, adding that he left his job in Las Vegas because the crushing caseloads left him "sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Crime shows, he said, make things tougher for real labs because they create unrealistic expectations for "the viewing public, who are potential jurors, and even some district attorneys who watch TV and think that's how the real world is."

One bit of reality many crime labs face is a backlog of cases that keeps some jobs waiting months to receive attention.

A typical waiting period at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is two to three months, said Jim Iverson, a forensic science supervisor in St. Paul.

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"We would love to have a30-day turnaround. You do the best you can with what you have," said Iverson, whose lab gets about 2,000 cases a year, many of them involving sexual assault.

Once DNA profiling is started, it may take three weeks to complete, though results can be obtained and certified in less time, Wahl said.

"If I was given a rush case ... it can be done in three days," he said.

The degree to which DNA profiles match depends on the number of genetic markers they share.

Even a small number indicates a strong connection, Wahl said, adding that when profiles share 10 or more markers, the chances of such a match happening at random begin approaching one in 600 billion.

As demand for DNA testing grows, the technology itself has become increasingly precise, with analysts gaining the ability to accomplish more and more with smaller and smaller samples.

"When I first started doing this, you needed a DNA stain the size of a quarter. These days, they're testing (for cells) on cigarette butts," said Christine Funk, a Hastings, Minn., public defender. She is part of a special team of defense attorneys who travel the state helping out on difficult forensic cases.

Funk said DNA can make for convincing evidence, but forensic findings are not always clear or reliable, and she said every case must be scrutinized.

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Cloudiness can creep in, she said, when a sample lifted from an object or person contains more than one DNA profile, when contamination of a sample occurs or when a given DNA profile is compared with profiles contained in a data bank.

With the latter, she said, a match doesn't necessarily mean a culprit has been identified.

Funk said that's because the probability of connecting a particular DNA profile to one in a data base is much higher than it would be if a single profile is compared at random to another single profile.

William Thompson, a professor in the department of criminology, law and society at the University of California Irvine, agreed. He said submitting a DNA sample to a database search is like playing the lottery.

"There's one chance in millions that any single person will win the lottery. But if you sell enough lottery tickets, somebody's going to win," he said, adding it is the same with a genetic lottery.

"Even though there might be one chance in millions or billions that a particular person would by chance lose by matching, if you have enough people in the data base somebody's going to lose, even if they're innocent," he said.

When someone falls under suspicion because of a data-base hit, authorities should be very careful to look for other evidence, Thompson said.

"The cases that are really troubling are cases where the DNA evidence is the only evidence, or where there is other evidence that is inconsistent, like the person has a good alibi.

"Those are the cases where we should really worry about coincidence," said Thompson, who helped uncover shoddy testing at a police crime lab in Houston that was blamed for two people being convicted of crimes they didn't commit.

The lab, shut down in 2003, recently reopened, Thompson said.

Problems with laboratories should become increasingly rare as more facilities agree to accreditation review, Iverson said. The Minnesota BCA has been accredited since 1994.

U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley praised scientists at the North Dakota and Minnesota crime labs who processed DNA evidence in the Rodriguez trial, stating it was essential in the early stages of the investigation.

"There was an absence of a body, and it (DNA) was absolutely critical in finding that Dru Sjodin had been in the defendant's car. But it also told so much more than that," Wrigley said.

Blood stains in Rodriguez's car revealed there had been an altercation of some kind and that Sjodin had been injured, he said.

"The blood patterns themselves also helped set a road map as to what had happened in that vehicle and what had not happened," he said.

"The reality is the science (of DNA) is beyond reproach. But you have to look at how it's done and how it's collected.

"To me, it ultimately answers that question of certainty for a juror. The standard is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But I think there's an important role for the certainty that comes with this type of evidence."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

Graphic: Matching evidence and suspect

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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