News 10.29.08

California DA Wins Partial Control of Crime Lab

The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 yesterday to award oversight of the country’s forensic labs to a three-member panel comprised of the District Attorney, County Sheriff and County CEO. The Innocence Project has argued that if prosecutors oversee forensic testing, politics could take precedence over science. And

a report in the OC Weekly

made it clear that the prosecutor’s office inappropriately pressed an analyst to alter the forensic report – despite DNA testing that clearly exonerated Ochoa.

Veteran forensic specialist Danielle G. Wieland made the charge last month during a civil deposition related to the December 2005 wrongful conviction and imprisonment of James Ochoa, according to documents obtained by the Weekly.

In a civil deposition taken last month for Ochoa’s wrongful-prosecution lawsuit, Ochoa attorney Patricio A. Marquez of Morrison & Foerster asked Wieland, “Did anyone ever exert pressure on you to change your [DNA] conclusions?”

“Yes,” Wieland replied. “Camille Hill from the DA’s office … She called me and asked me to change the conclusion that Mr. Ochoa was eliminated from [DNA found on] the left cuff of the shirt.”

Before its vote yesterday, the board received a letter from Ochoa, who served nearly two years in California prison for a carjacking he didn’t commit. He wrote:

The fact that the prosecution proceeded with my case in order to protect their image when they knew they had insufficient evidence demonstrated to me that the District Attorney’s office is willing to go too far. After what happened to me, it is pretty clear that the District Attorney doesn’t care about guilt or innocence; he cares about his career.



Read Ochoa’s full letter here

.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas disputed the allegation of impropriety at Tuesday’s hearing:

Rackauckas explained to the board that his prosecutor merely questioned the analyst about her conclusion and did not try to influence her.

"(But) once an allegation is made, it can be pretty hard for the other party to disprove it," Rackauckas said.


Read the full article here

. (OC Register, 10/28/08)

And an editorial in the OC Register before the board meeting said “Orange County's efforts to safeguard the public and protect the innocent have been caught up in an ugly turf war between the District Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Department”

Officials at the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to free the wrongly convicted, rightly told the newspaper that it's a conflict of interest for district attorneys to control DNA and other forms of evidence. "Just like we wouldn't want a defense attorney to call the shots in a lab, we wouldn't want a prosecutor," said one Innocence Project spokesman.

That's exactly right. Prosecutors are interested parties in legal proceedings. They are seeking convictions, so it would be unwise to let any D.A. control such important evidence. In fact, as the Register also reported, "A senior [Orange County]prosecutor is alleged to have pressured a sheriff's analyst to change her conclusion in a carjacking case that kept an innocent man imprisoned for 16 months." That's chilling.


Read the full editorial here

. (OC Register, 10/23/08)

 

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