The validity of so-called "genetic fingerprinting" went on trial Monday in Santa Ana, as 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, a defense attorney sought to refute that theory by showing potential inaccuracies in the testing and interpretation of DNA, short for deoxyribonucleic acid. In the case at issue, Danny Harris, 39, is charged on 46 counts of rape, sexual molestation and burglary.
The hearing is the first in the county to explore the legal questions over genetic fingerprinting--a new practice seen as a scientific boon by prosecutors and a dangerous and unreliable precedent by defense lawyers.
Charged in 18 Rapes, Other Violence
Attorneys 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 will decide whether prosecutors can offer at Harris' upcoming trial genetic evidence that purportedly ties the Buena Park man to about 18 rapes and other violent crimes around the county.
First devised in England four years ago, 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 U.S. courts; 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, prosecutors in Orange, Ventura and Alameda counties 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 is already planning to set up its own genetic fingerprinting laboratory. Just four such labs exist in the country.
$200,000 Needed for Lab
Larry Ragle, director of forensic sciences, said Monday that the Sheriff's Department has 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 hopes that the Board of Supervisors will approve more money next month.
Genetic fingerprinting "would be a tremendous tool for us to have in our investigations," Ragle said.
In the meantime, however, county officials face stiff opposition from some members of the scientific and legal defense communities, who accuse prosecutors of trying to rush a still-unreliable process into legal proceedings.
At Monday's hearing in the Harris case, defense attorney John D. Barnett sought to show that the process is riddled with the potential for erroneous results.
He also challenged the ability of Ryder--a vertebrate geneticist who has worked extensively with DNA tests in studying wildlife at the San Diego Zoo but who 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.
'Too Big a Risk'
He added: "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 DNA evidence, he would be significantly hampered in trying to prove to a jury that Harris is guilty of the 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 that they hope to introduce semen specimens, which they believe conclusively tie Harris to at least five of the 18 rapes in which he is charged.