Law enforcement officials in California are awaiting the decision of a Ventura Superior Court judge on whether to allow evidence from a new and controversial scientific technique called DNA “fingerprinting” into a murder trial.
Although courts in 13 states have admitted evidence from the technique, no California court has done so. If Judge Lawrence Storch decides to admit the evidence, his decision would set a precedent for other courts in the state.
Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury wants to use the technique to establish the identity of the person who fatally stabbed George White, a 63-year-old handyman, last year at a Ventura hamburger stand.
Storch ordered the hearing, which began Monday, to determine whether DNA test results are sufficiently accurate to allow as evidence. Because of the complexity of the case and the difficulty in scheduling testimony from scientific experts, the hearing is expected to continue into April.
The hearing has drawn prosecutors and defense attorneys from outside Ventura County as spectators. They are preparing for trials in which DNA fingerprinting may be sought as evidence.
DNA, which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, is found in the cells of human tissue, such as blood, hair, skin or semen. Scientists say they can translate the extremely intricate genetic makeup of tissue into DNA patterns that resemble supermarket bar codes. The chances of two people having the same DNA structure are more than a billion to one, said Carol J. Nelson, the senior deputy district attorney who is prosecuting the first-degree murder case against Lynda Axell, 34.
Ventura County prosecutors have spent a year preparing for the hearing and are flying in molecular biologists and other experts from around the country.
“There will be nothing spared,” Bradbury said. “It’s important that a significant foundation be laid so that the admissibility of DNA be unassailable on appeal.”
On Monday, Richard Roberts, a molecular biologist who is assistant director for research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, testified that the DNA patterns from hair belonging to Axell identically matched the DNA patterns from 15 hairs found at Top Hat Burger after White’s slaying.
The Harvard-trained biologist also testified that DNA fingerprinting is used regularly in genetic research.
White was killed on Feb. 24, 1988. Axell, who worked at a costume shop on the same block and has admitted that she is a crack addict, was allegedly linked to the crime by a police informant. She has maintained her innocence and sits quietly, dressed in white, as the hearing inches forward.
On Tuesday, San Diego defense attorney Patricia W. Robinson took notes. She said she is preparing for a death penalty case in which the prosecution is seeking to introduce DNA evidence that purportedly would link her client to a San Diego murder.
In that case, the prosecution is trying to introduce such evidence based on one hair, she said.
“I question the methods, and the way the sample is stored and if it’s destroyed. This technology is just too new,” Robinson said.
At times, the Ventura courtroom resembled a high school biology class as the molecular biologists explained such terms as loci, restriction enzymes, the twinned DNA helix and electrophoresis.
In the typing process, DNA is extracted from the cells, cut into fragments by an enzyme and separated into bands using electrophoresis--a well-established procedure that scatters the DNA with an electric current.
The resulting DNA pattern is transferred onto a nylon membrane. X-ray film and radioactive chemicals that bind with specific DNA sequences are then applied to make the bands visible to the naked eye. These bands, which record DNA patterns that are different for each individual, are known as the DNA fingerprint.
The test was developed in 1985 by Alec Jeffreys, a geneticist at the University of Leicester in England. It was first used in a celebrated British case in which a Leicester-area baker named Colin Pitchfork was found guilty of raping and strangling two 15-year-old girls. That case is the subject of a new book, “The Blooding,” by ex-policeman and best-selling writer Joseph Wambaugh.
Willard P. Wiksell, one of Axell’s two court-appointed attorneys, said he believes that the scientific procedure has “a number of flaws.”
“The day has not yet arrived when you can look at a hair found on the floor and say it came from a specific individual,” Wiksell said. He compared DNA technology to lie detector tests and voice analysis machines, which have been disallowed in many courts.
“It’s a brand-new procedure. It just hasn’t had the scrutiny, and most of the people who are in favor of it have a financial interest in it,” he said.
He and James M. Farley, Axell’s other attorney, said they plan to call their own experts to discredit Nelson’s experts.
The defense, which is not cross-examining the prosecution witnesses this week, has asked for more time to research the case. The attorneys have received Storch’s approval to cross-examine Nelson’s experts in their labs, which are in Berkeley, Washington and New York. The testimony will be recorded both by a video camera and a court stenographer.
The hearing will then reconvene in Ventura. The defense will play the videotaped evidence for Storch, call its own witnesses and join Nelson in closing arguments. Only then will the judge issue his decision.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials in California are already hailing the technique.
“It’s the most significant development since fingerprints,” Bradbury said. “It retains our life codes. It’s proof beyond any possible doubt.”
State Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp has called DNA a major breakthrough in crime-solving.
A second trial involving DNA fingerprinting is expected to start next month in Orange County.
Charges were filed against 41-year-old rape and burglary suspect Danny Harris after DNA tests allegedly matched tissue found at the crime scene with his tissue.
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is found in cells of human tissue such as blood, hair, skin or semen. Scientists say the genetic makeup of tissue can be translated into intricate DNA patterns, and the chances of two people having identical DNA structure are more than a billion to one.