Precedent Sought in Rape Case : 'Genetic Fingerprinting' on Trial

Times Staff Writer

The validity of so-called "genetic fingerprinting" went on trial here Monday as Orange County prosecutors sought to become the first in California to use a criminal suspect's genetic makeup as evidence in court.

"It's very clear that individuals are genetically unique," Dr. Oliver A. Ryder, a scientist with the San Diego Zoo, testified at a hearing on the admissibility of genetic evidence in criminal proceedings.

But in more than three hours of intense questioning, the defense attorney for Danny Harris, accused of 46 counts of rape, sexual molestation and burglary, sought to refute that theory by showing potential inaccuracies in the testing and interpretation of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).

The hearing was the first in Orange County to explore controversial legal questions surrounding genetic fingerprinting--a new practice seen as a scientific boon by prosecutors and a dangerous and unreliable precedent by defense attorneys.

2nd Round of Testimony

Lawyers in the Harris case are to return July 24 to begin a second round of testimony before Superior Court Judge William R. Froeberg. The judge ultimately must decide whether prosecutors can offer at Harris' upcoming trial genetic evidence that purportedly links the 39-year-old Buena Park man to about 18 rapes and a series of other violent crimes around the county.

First devised in England four years ago, the process of genetic fingerprinting uses samples of blood, semen or body tissue to establish an individual's genetic code or DNA pattern, a blueprint for all living organisms. Backers of the process maintain that, with the exception of identical twins, each individual has a unique genetic pattern.

Genetic fingerprinting, considered by prosecutors more reliable and readily available than standard fingerprints in identifying perpetrators of sexual assaults and violent crimes, has gained only limited acceptance in a few courts around the nation. And it has never been allowed into evidence in California.

But backed by a strong endorsement in January from state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, local prosecutors in Orange, Ventura and Alameda counties all now are seeking to introduce genetic evidence in pending criminal cases, according to Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Dennis D. Bauer.

"If we're successful in this (Harris) case in getting (genetic fingerprinting) into evidence, it'll certainly make it that much easier the next time around," said Bauer, explaining the precedent-setting importance of the case.

Indeed, the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner's Department already is making plans to set up its own genetic fingerprinting laboratory. Only four now exist in the country.

'A Tremendous Tool'

Larry Ragle, director of forensic sciences, said Monday that the Sheriff's Department department has now raised about $45,000 from the private sector for the project. That is far short of the $200,000 needed to start the lab by the end of the year, but Ragle said he is hopeful that the Board of Supervisors may approve additional funding next month.

"This (genetic fingerprinting) would be a tremendous tool for us to have in our investigations," Ragle said in an interview.

In the meantime, however, county officials face stiff opposition from some members of the scientific and legal defense communities who assert that prosecutors are trying to rush an unreliable process into action.

At Monday's hearing in the Harris case, defense attorney John D. Barnett sought to show that the genetic fingerprinting process is riddled with the potential for erroneous results.

He also challenged the ability of Dr. Ryder--a vertebrate geneticist who has worked extensively with DNA testing in studying wildlife at the San Diego Zoo but is not a forensic scientist--to testify adequately on the subject.

Assessing Ryder's testimony, Barnett said later: "There's simply insufficient scientific agreement on the ability of life codes to predict matches (between a genetic pattern and an individual) . . . These life codes are still under tremendous scrutiny. And right now, there's just too big a risk to take in a criminal case."

Prosecutor Bauer acknowledged that, without the aid of the DNA evidence, he would be significantly hampered in trying to prove to a jury that Harris was responsible for a series of violent assaults in Anaheim, Fullerton, Santa Ana and Garden Grove dating back to 1985.

Bauer would not elaborate on the genetic evidence in the Harris case. But Barnett said prosecutors have already indicated they plan to introduce semen specimens, which they claim conclusively tie Harris to at least five of the 18 rapes for which he is charged.

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