Expert Says Handling of Bronco Eliminates Confidence in Test Results
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Poor evidence handling and lax security around O.J. Simpson’s police-impounded Ford Bronco raise serious doubts about the trustworthiness of critical blood stains found in the vehicle, a defense expert testified today.
Denver microbiologist John Gerdes began his second day of testimony by questioning results of DNA tests performed on blood lifted from the Bronco last August, after the Bronco had been broken into while stored in a police tow yard.
``You can no longer have any scientific confidence in″ those tests, Gerdes stated firmly.
Shortly afterward, however, the prosecution portrayed Gerdes as a hired gun for the defense, a scientist with no direct experience in forensic work.
``You’ve never tested evidence in a criminal case, correct?″ asked Deputy District Attorney George ``Woody″ Clarke.
``No, I haven’t,″ Gerdes said.
In powerful testimony Wednesday, Gerdes suggested that faded little dots on DNA test strips cast a dark shadow over the prosecution’s case, possibly signaling widespread contamination in the police crime lab.
The dots, Gerdes said, could show that Simpson’s blood seeped into samples of his alleged victims’ blood, and that a prosecution scientist was wrong in saying victim Ronald Goldman’s blood likely was in Simpson’s Bronco.
But Gerdes said he didn’t feel other blood samples suffered contamination, including blood on the glove found at Simpson’s estate, a sock from Simpson’s bedroom and a gate at the crime scene.
Gerdes said those samples contained sufficient amounts of genetic material to rule out the possibility of contamination. His testimony on this point was an apparent effort by the defense to prove the second part of its theory: that blood which wasn’t contaminated was planted by police to frame Simpson.
According to prosecution tests, the right-handed glove from the estate contained the genetic markers of victims Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, while the sock blood contained Ms. Simpson’s genetic code, and the gate blood had Simpson’s DNA signature.
Wednesday ``was a terrific day for the defense,″ said Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of Southern California. ``The core of the prosecution case is the blood evidence. This gives the jury the possible grounds that the results are a product of contamination and mishandling.″
Jurors, who appeared bored during some of the earlier scientific testimony, took abundant notes Wednesday. They scribbled in their notepads every time defense attorney Barry Scheck put up a chart or made a point on direct examination.
Clarke began his cross-examination after a morning recess, eliciting from Gerdes the fact that of the 30 cases he has been hired to work on, only one was for the prosecution. In all the cases, Gerdes said, he has noted the risks of using PCR technology for crime work. And in about 10 of those cases, he was criticizing work done by Ed Blake, a DNA pioneer who was part of the Simpson defense’s scientific team.
``Now, the laboratories that I believe you said you’d been retained (by) about 30 times ... is it correct that most of those times, it has been to review work done by Dr. Blake?″ Clarke asked.
``... I would say maybe a third of the time, at this point,″ Gerdes answered.
Blake is not expected to testify at the trial.
Gerdes also said his lab was being paid about $30,000 for work on Simpson’s case.
Clarke’s job, through cross-examination, is to restore some credibility to the prosecution’s DNA case, which petered out when its statistician admitted fumbling some DNA figures.
The Los Angeles Police Department will have to take a long, hard look at its lab operation _ if only because defense attorneys all over town will be. Legal experts said Scheck’s attack could serve as a defense blueprint for years to come.
``If the defense is correct on this, it may mean we have to reopen hundreds of cases that had evidence processed in that lab,″ Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said. ``The impact of this case is far-reaching.″
Listening to Gerdes’ testimony was Nobel Prize-winning scientist Kary Mullis, who invented the PCR test. He was the next scheduled witness in the defense’s all-out bid to raise reasonable doubt about the prosecution’s powerful DNA evidence.
The prosecution’s five-month case against Simpson for the June 12, 1994, murders of his ex-wife and Goldman included multiple DNA tests that placed Simpson’s genetic markers on drops of blood leading away from the bodies. Prosecutors say Simpson cut himself during the knife murders.
But Gerdes testified he found sloppiness so serious at the LAPD lab that it could have allowed foreign DNA to be introduced into evidence samples, including at least one of the blood drops at the crime scene.
``I found that the LAPD lab has a substantial contamination problem that is persistent,″ Gerdes told jurors. ``It’s there month after month, and it doesn’t go away.″
Gerdes testified that he has examined the work of 23 DNA laboratories across the country. Asked if the level of contamination at the LAPD lab was ``worse than in any other forensic laboratory″ he has seen, Gerdes replied, ``Definitely, by far.″
He showed jurors pictures of the lab, noting test tubes stored touching each other, which risks cross-contamination, and a bottle of chemical solution used in DNA testing labeled with a date that was four months old. He said other labs replace such solution every week.
Gerdes said DNA results suggested blood found in the foyer of Simpson’s mansion contaminated blood drawn from the bodies of the victims. He said a barely visible dot on a DNA test strip was evidence of one of Simpson’s genetic markers popping up in Ms. Simpson’s blood, which wasn’t supposed to have that marker.
This testimony marked the first time the defense presented any evidence of contamination. Previously, the defense has referred only to the risks of contamination.
Gerdes said the contamination likely started in the early parts of the case, with the collection of the blood and the extraction of the genetic material from the blood by police technicians.
This, he said, rendered suspect the results of all testing by outside laboratories, which he said had better quality controls than the police lab.