The Los Angeles Police Department’s crime laboratory is afflicted by chronic contamination, a DNA expert said Wednesday in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, testimony that defense lawyers offered as a key element in their campaign to debunk scientific evidence pointing to Simpson’s guilt.
John Gerdes, clinical director of Immunological Associates of Denver, told the jury that he had visited the LAPD lab and studied casework performed there. Gerdes’ findings: “The LAPD laboratory has a substantial contamination problem that is persistent and substantial.”
Barry Scheck, one of Simpson’s lawyers, then asked Gerdes whether he would describe the problem as chronic.
“It is chronic,” Gerdes responded. “It is chronic in the sense that it doesn’t go away. I can find it month after month, and it persists.”
In his opening statement, Simpson lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. had promised the jury that it would hear evidence that the LAPD lab was a “cesspool of contamination,” a pledge that Gerdes’ testimony was intended to fulfill. Again and again, Scheck solicited his impression of the Police Department’s practices and problems, and Gerdes could not have been more critical.
Describing the contamination problem as “extremely serious,” Gerdes said a private lab--such as one that does bone marrow transfer work--never would be allowed to operate with so much contamination. “They would shut the lab down with this level of contamination,” he said.
And after telling the jury that he had reviewed the work of 23 DNA labs across the country, Gerdes was asked whether the LAPD’s was the worst he had ever seen.
“Definitely,” he responded. “By far.”
Gerdes’ testimony potentially was extremely valuable to Simpson’s case--his attorneys have long urged the jury to treat the prosecution’s scientific evidence skeptically. But it incorporated an alphabet soup of scientific jargon and was delivered to an openly mocking prosecution team and a grumpy judge, who was celebrating his 45th birthday by presiding over a trial that already has far exceeded the time he promised the jury it would take.
Ito lashed out several times Wednesday, threatening to eject members of the audience for laughing, barking at a man who entered the courtroom too loudly and openly expressing his exasperation with the laborious questioning.
For its part, the jury seemed only mildly attentive at first, taking few notes during the early stages of Gerdes’ testimony. But as the scientist continued, members of the panel seemed to perk up, reaching more frequently for note pads. By afternoon, when Gerdes was describing specific errors by the Police Department in other cases, the panel seemed fully engaged in the testimony, taking extensive notes and following with rapt attention.
Simpson, by contrast, barely seemed interested. He spent much of Wednesday’s session staring into space or tracking the testimony by gazing at a computer screen on the defense table. He chatted occasionally with his lawyers but otherwise seemed largely disengaged from the proceedings.
Despite Gerdes’ scathing evaluations of the LAPD and its laboratory personnel, the Denver scientist did not say that he saw actual evidence of contamination in the Simpson case, in which the former football star has pleaded not guilty to the murders of Ronald Lyle Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson.
Gerdes did, however, question some of the analysis performed on individual samples, including bloodstains recovered from Simpson’s Ford Bronco. That analysis, the witness said, ignored the possibility of contamination and thus could have misstated the likelihood that some of the blood came from Goldman. Prosecutors have pointed to the test suggesting the possibility of Goldman’s blood in the car as one prong of their self-described “mountain” of DNA evidence implicating Simpson in the June 12, 1994, crimes.
Prosecutors had argued that Gerdes’ testimony should not be allowed since errors in other cases do not mean that contamination compromised evidence in the Simpson case. Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito permitted the defense to present Gerdes anyway, but had directed Scheck to limit the examination to six hours. Scheck, whose questioning elicited some of the most helpful testimony so far for Simpson but who lacks a knack for brevity, exceeded Ito’s limit, but the judge allowed him to continue anyway.
Because Gerdes did not testify that evidence in the Simpson case was contaminated, prosecutors belittled the significance of his account.
“This is a script. He won’t get specific,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Rockne Harmon said outside court. “We’ve heard this stuff before. Scientists call it hand-waving.”
LAPD Procedures Dissected
Even though Gerdes did not tell the jury that he found evidence of contamination in the Simpson case, he did testify that there were ample opportunities for that evidence to have become compromised, given what he said were careless and sloppy procedures for handling and testing that evidence.
Over repeated objections by Deputy Dist. Atty. George Clarke, the scientist picked apart the practices described by LAPD criminalists Colin Yamauchi, Dennis Fung and others.
Some police analysts had testified that they only changed their gloves when they got stained; Gerdes said the gloves should have been changed after dealing with every item. Yamauchi said he had handled a test tube of Simpson’s blood at about the same time he had examined a bloodstained glove discovered at Simpson’s estate; Gerdes said that practice created a risk of contaminating the glove. Chemicals in the LAPD lab had not been changed for several months when Gerdes visited the facility in January; Gerdes said that, too, could have created opportunities for cross-contamination.
He also reviewed blood typing charts that listed in detail the findings of the LAPD and of two other labs that helped analyze evidence in the case. In doing so, he contrasted the procedures and analysis performed by those two labs--privately run Cellmark Diagnostics of Germantown, Md., and the state Department of Justice facility in Berkeley--with what he said was sloppy evidence-handling at the LAPD.
A Police Department analyst, for instance, stored all his test tubes side by side, Gerdes said. His Department of Justice counterpart separated the test tubes so they would not touch each other and cross-contaminate samples stored inside.
Some of the testimony was highly technical, and Scheck attempted to make it accessible. At one point, he tried to illustrate Gerdes’ work in regard to organ transplants by noting the recent example of Mickey Mantle’s liver transplant.
Whether the jury got that reference was unclear: The panel has been sequestered since January, cut off from most news from the outside world, so it may or may not know of the former baseball great’s recent medical troubles.
Nevertheless, jurors seemed to pay close attention during Gerdes’ testimony about the mistakes he believes the LAPD made. Moreover, the panelists have spent months learning about some aspects of DNA testing, so it was a far more knowledgeable jury that listened to Gerdes’ testimony than the one that heard prosecution witnesses initially describe the process.
Ito noted the jurors’ growing expertise, commenting on the knowing smiles of at least two panelists when Gerdes described one aspect of cross-contamination, a topic broached long ago in the trial.
“The nodding of the jurors indicates that they recollect that from this trial too,” Ito said. “And they recollect it from a month ago.”
Cochran Reminded of Promise
The extended questioning of Gerdes occupied the entire court day, and will continue today, as the defense still has not finished with him. Prosecutors will then have the opportunity for cross-examination, which could occupy the balance of the session.
Defense attorneys recently predicted that they might rest their case as early as this week, a prognosis that few analysts took seriously but that Cochran made directly to Ito. During a brief hearing outside the jury’s presence Wednesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden reminded Cochran of his comments.
“I thought they were going to rest,” Darden said, nodding over his shoulder in Cochran’s direction.
“That’s what they told me,” Ito added.
Smiling easily, Cochran replied that if the prosecution would stop forcing Ito to hold hearings on defense witnesses before they were allowed to testify, he could speed up the defense presentation.
“If you don’t call them,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark chimed in, “then we won’t have to make the motions.”
With a number of witnesses still up in the air--Ito has yet to rule on whether two reporters will be allowed to take the stand, for instance--the anticipated end of the defense case still remains in doubt.
Simpson’s lawyers could rest next week or the following one. On the other hand, in the unlikely event that the defendant’s lawyers should suddenly change course and call Simpson to testify on his own behalf, the defense case would undoubtedly be extended several weeks.
Waiting in the wings Wednesday was Dr. Kary Mullis, the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of the DNA technology being discussed. Tanned and gaunt, Mullis sat near the defense table, sometimes paying close attention to Gerdes’ testimony, other times glancing around the courtroom and yawning.
Mullis’ appearance was his first in the courtroom, and his presence set the stage for a long-anticipated faceoff between the scientist and Harmon, who has vowed to tell the jury about the scientist’s controversial habits, including his admitted use of LSD. Defense attorneys say Mullis could take the stand today or Friday.
The approaching confrontation between the scientist and prosecutor represents a clash of personal and professional styles. It will bring together Harmon, a graduate of the Naval Academy and a famously aggressive prosecutor, and Mullis, an acclaimed scientist who invented the PCR form of DNA testing but who relishes his life as a freewheeling Southern California surfer with a taste for sexually explicit humor and illicit drugs.
Since the defense opened its case last month, the prosecution has posed objections to certain aspects of the testimony of many defense expert witnesses, but has been curiously silent about Mullis.
“They want Kary to take the stand,” defense attorney Carl Douglas said outside court Wednesday. “They’re waiting for him.”
Harmon, in fact, began growing a beard the weekend before the defense opened its case last month and vowed to shave it if the Simpson attorneys dared to call Mullis. On Wednesday, Douglas gently taunted the prosecutor, whose fierce courtroom demeanor is contrasted by an easygoing sense of humor outside the court.
“Rock,” Douglas said to Harmon, “It’s time to shave.”
Later, Harmon smiled and responded: “I look forward to shaving and to cross-examining him.”