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Experts at Odds Over Impact of DNA Fingerprinting

April 15, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Legal experts were at odds Wednesday over the impact of a federal research panel’s endorsement of the use of genetic evidence in criminal trials.

While the National Research Council embraced the technique known as DNA fingerprinting, it also urged in its report Tuesday that judges exercise caution about the testing methods used before admitting any results into evidence.

The issue revolves around the finding that everyone, carries a unique genetic pattern in deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, in every cell. Only identical twins should have the same pattern.

The research council’s panel said DNA typing can as a reliable way to identify criminals and exonerate innocent suspects. But it recommended nationwide standards for laboratory procedures for analysing the samples of blood, semen or hair found at crime scenes.

The report said judges - not juries - should decide whether testing flaws are so serious that the DNA evidence should be ignored in a criminal trial.

Many courts now admit into evidence the results of challenged DNA tests but instruct jurors to decide whether a flaw is serious enough to undermine the reliability of the finding.

Jeff Brown, a public defender in San Francisco, said the report ″should cool the enthusiasm for this sort of evidence. It really says ’don’t be bowled over by these tests and these test results. Pause, take a look at it.‴

But a member of the NRC panel, U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein of New York City, disagreed.

Weinstein said the report ″will make trial judges more comfortable with admitting DNA evidence″ because the technique″will have the imprimatur of an important committee.″

Weinstein said DNA tests will be admitted into evidence unless lab procedures were so sloppy that a reasonable person would have to conclude the test was flawed.

Weinstein predicted that some courts would suppress test results of sloppy lab work ″just as a kind of deterrence.″

New York defense attorney Peter Neufeld, a leading critic of DNA testing, predicted that ″hundreds of convictions could be reopened″ as a result of the report’s findings.

Richard O. Lempert, a University of Michigan law professor and member of the panel, also said appellate courts reviewing pending convictions may take a closer look at defense challenges to DNA testing.

But Weinstein predicted such motions would not be successful.

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