Edited by Julie Fry
Written by Celia Givens

Landmark DNA Confrontation Clause Decision
from New York Court of Appeals

The New York Court of Appeals ruled in People v. John last week that the practice of allowing criminalists to testify regarding DNA testing where they had only nominal personal involvement violates the 6th Amendment. The New York Law Journal notes that the case is the "most significant decision" Janet DiFiore has made in her three months as chief judge, writing for the majority that "where the laboratory report is testimonial in nature—and the generation of the DNA profile in this pending criminal action was testimonial—at least one analyst with the requisite personal knowledge must testify." 

The ruling overturns prior precedent form New York’s high court and will undoubtedly change a current common practice in New York City of offering the testimony of a “surrogate” criminalist in place of one who actually performed or witnessed the testing in a particular case. The Court of Appeals also acknowledged that DNA testing is not a “solely mechanized process” and that there are lots of opportunities for human error and input throughout the analysis process.

The case was litigated at the trial level by Legal Aid Society DNA Unit attorney Richard Torres, whose trial motions were cited throughout the historic decision.
Forensics in the News

Defense counsel in cold hit murder case questions forensic expert’s analysis of “touch DNA” evidence at trial. After discovering an inconsistent allele on the evidence profile, concerns have emerged about whether the defendant’s DNA was left due to secondary transfer or contamination (Philly)

Vermont House of Representatives passes “spit test bill” which allows police to take saliva samples from drivers suspected of using marijuana and other drugs—despite scientist warnings that drug consumption levels have little impact on how impaired a driver is: "[Documents show] a state-retained lab warned the test could not be used to measure impairment behind the wheel." (Brattleboro Reformer
Related: Chicago Tribune

New Biomeme system turns any iPhone into a portable DNA lab equipped with software and external attachments that include PCR thermocyclers that produce lab-grade DNA analysis results (Tech Times)
Related: Scientists develop MinION USB-powered DNA sequencer

Encryption battle expands into biometric data after the FBI obtained a search warrant compelling defendant’s girlfriend to provide her digitized fingerprint scan to unlock an iPhone: “Even with the limited outlines of the inquiry…compelling a person in custody to press her finger against a phone breached the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination. It forced [her] to testify—without uttering a word—because by moving her finger and unlocking the phone, she authenticated its contents.” (San Angelo Standard Times)
Related: FBI Won’t Reveal Vulnerability that Unlocked iPhone

New entomology study shows commonly used method of determining human decomposition may be inaccurate; could refute expert testimony in court in the long term (Science Magazine)

Oklahoma is latest state to pass law requiring DNA collection for those arrested for felonies (News 9)

Opinions and Commentary
The Editorial Board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette argues defense counsel should have access to TrueAllele source code in Michael Robinson murder trial, stating:

"Computer programs shrouded in secrecy do not inspire confidence in the justice system. Surely the judge could order release of the source code while including provisions to protect Dr. Perlin’s intellectual property. Cybergenetics says its program is intended to 'help ensure that the guilty are convicted and that the innocent are freed.' In Mr. Robinson’s case, that will mean giving defense attorneys a peek behind the curtain. Mr. Robinson’s life is on the line."

Scientists aim to make forensic evidence and testimony more accurate—so far with little success: “...courts are no better than labs where shoddy work is done. Variations in personality undermine the dispassionate nature of science, making it susceptible to human prejudices rather than the strength of the evidence itself.” (TechDirt)

Investigative reporter Susan Goldsmith’s new documentary “The Syndrome” examines the problems with SBS junk science, estimating that at least 1,000 people are currently imprisoned for SBS crimes they did not commit (Pocono Record)
CNN: Lab-on-a-chip decodes DNA to predict your future

Chris Toumazou, Founding Director and Chief Scientist at The Institute of Biomedical Engineering Imperial College, has created a new microchip technology (“lab-on-a-chip”) that can analyze a person’s DNA in under 30 minutes for as little as $20: 

“The portable nature of the chips mean tests can take place rapidly within a doctor's clinic or in remote locations far from medical facilities. They could even be conducted inside a patient's own home given the chip can be plugged into a laptop, or similar device, to obtain the results. The pivotal point is that specialists are not required.”

Click the picture to watch a video about the Lab-on-a-chip!

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