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O.C. has only taken a half-step in the right direction on its DNA program

O.C. has only taken a half-step in the right direction on its DNA program
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer speaks in Santa Ana, Calif. on March 11. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

When he was an Orange County supervisor, Todd Spitzer was absolutely correct to question the need for the county district attorney’s in-house DNA testing program. After all, a county-operated crime lab already collects and analyzes samples from suspected felons. A separate prosecutor-run DNA lab is a costly and unnecessary redundancy, and besides, it inappropriately pressures even misdemeanor suspects to provide samples by dangling the prospect of a quick release from jail in exchange for a cheek swab.

And as Spitzer repeatedly noted, there is a built-in conflict of interest when the same prosecutor who collects and keeps custody of DNA also introduces it as evidence and testifies about it in court. It’s as if the district attorney is putting himself on the stand and answering his own questions. No other D.A. in the nation does that. Spitzer repeatedly argued that the arrangement was subject to abuse.

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Now that Spitzer is district attorney, having defeated his mentor-turned-nemesis Tony Rackauckus in November, it falls to him to get rid of the DNA program that he so heavily criticized.

There is a built-in conflict of interest when the same prosecutor who collects and keeps custody of DNA also introduces it as evidence and testifies about it.


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Instead, he’s decided to keep it, while agreeing with a Board of Supervisors’ decision that he relinquish his office’s role in joint management of the county’s crime lab. It’s the wrong move twice over.

Spitzer has already made the case for getting rid of the D.A.’s private crime lab. Although he was fond of attacking Rackauckus, he made it clear that the problem was not merely the management of the program but its very existence and structure. He ought to call up a few recordings of his statements while on the Board of Supervisors. He was right then. He’s wrong now.

It doesn’t help matters — at least, not much — that he and the board have turned over management of the county’s crime lab to the exclusive control of the sheriff.

Although law enforcement runs most crime labs around the country, it’s not the best way to go because police and sheriffs have some of the same conflicts in collecting and analyzing evidence that the district attorney does. Crime labs should be operated independently, possibly by a university or a nonprofit. Orange County’s wasn’t, but at least it had multiple oversight from the county’s chief executive, the sheriff and the D.A. It didn’t make for the most efficient operation, yet the structure still provided a modicum of checks and balances in the absence of truly independent leadership. Removing the D.A. from the mix weakens those checks and balances.

It’s too bad that Spitzer hasn’t followed through on getting rid of the separate DNA databank his office controls. He had an opportunity to correct at least a part of Orange County’s messed-up criminal justice system, but he seems like much less of a reformer now that he doesn’t have Rackauckus to kick around anymore.

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