The Guilford County Sheriff’s Department’s move earlier this week to scrap an in-house rapid DNA program that was established by the former Sheriff’s Department administration three years ago drew loud and immediate criticism when it was announced on Tuesday, March 26 – and opponents of the cancelation of that testing program say some of the reasoning behind the move is flawed.
One reason the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department stated for getting rid of the program was that no evidence from the machine could be admitted into court because the results were unaccredited. A press release from the department that explained the rationale for the move to eliminate the program stated, “NO FINDINGS rendered by this equipment could have been entered in a court of law and resulted in a suspect being convicted.”
Roy Swiger, now the CEO of medical testing company ImpeDx Diagnostics Inc., previously ran the company that built the machine used by the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department. Swiger told the Rhino Timesthat that statement is inaccurate and said results from the type of machine in question – even if a testing program is unaccredited – are absolutely admissible in a court of law and have been admitted in courts across the country. Swiger is a DNA analysis expert who helped set up the California Dept. of Justice’s DNA crime lab, has been a director of a forensic intelligence laboratory for the US government, and has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics. He said it’s just false to say that no unaccredited results from this machine could be admitted into a court of law, though he added that being accredited may certainly help DNA evidence get admitted.
He said the results from the machine at the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department meet the highest standards of reliability and also said that accreditation didn’t make those results any better but was instead merely a matter of whether an organization had taken the necessary steps to get that official stamp of approval from an accrediting agency.
The Rhino Timesasked Guilford County Chief District Court Judge Tom Jarrell and Superior Court Judge Joe Craig, Guilford County’s senior resident judge, about the admissibility of unaccredited DNA results. Both said that unaccredited DNA results can be admitted as evidence.
“All evidence is admissible if it is relevant,” Jarrell said. “If it comes from an inherently reliable source, and the proponent of that evidence is able to lay the proper foundation, then it can be admitted.”
Jarrell said the questions that would be asked in this case are ones such as, “Is it backed by science?” and “Is the machine properly calibrated?”
He said another such question would be, “Did the person operating the machine follow proper procedures?”
According to Jarrell, at the heart of the matter is the question of whether the analysis is “inherently reliable.” He said one standard for that is whether the results were valid according to generally accepted scientific principals.
“You can’t just say flatly that it is not admissible,” Jarrell said of unaccredited DNA evidence.
Jarrell sees DNA results often in child support cases and paternity suits.
Craig also said that nothing precludes unaccredited DNA results from being admitted in court.
“If it’s called into question,” he said of DNA evidence, “the trial judge has to act as the gatekeeper.”
Craig said it’s not so much a question of whether the machine is accredited, but whether the results are reliable.
“The fact that it’s unaccredited doesn’t mean it’s inadmissible,” Crag said.
He said in the case of a challenge to the evidence, the judge would hear both sides and weigh the arguments.
“It would probably be a fairly lengthy hearing,” Craig said, adding that it might take a couple of hours of argument in court to determine whether DNA results should or should not be admitted.
He also said the converse is true: Nothing guarantees that accredited DNA results will be admitted in court.
There are multiple agencies that provide accreditation for DNA testing programs and Craig noted that, when it comes to accreditation related to any type of evidence, the court must consider the government body, agency or organization behind the accreditation.
“Who’s doing the accrediting?” he said, adding that that would be one relevant question in the discussion.
When the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department was informed of some of the responses from court officials and national experts, and asked if it wished to revisit the statement that “NO FINDINGS rendered by this equipment could have been entered in a court,” the department responded in an email.
“The Guilford County Sheriff’s Office DNA process is not accredited,” the response reads. “You can try to submit anything in a court of law but that doesn’t mean it will be accepted by the prosecution or gain a conviction in court. We are not going to split hairs or play semantics here.”
The statement from the Sheriff’s Department went on to say that it made no sense for Guilford County to continue a program that produced unaccredited results when, for less money, the department could handle the evidence in a way in which the results would be accredited.
“The bottom line is over half a million dollars has been spent on an in-house DNA process that is not accredited and we still have to pay a fee to send the evidence collected to a private lab,” the statement read. “We are not going to continue a program at the expense of taxpayers that is unaccredited while using tax payers dollars to send samples to a private lab. The results from private labs can be returned in hours and their process is accredited. The citizens of Guilford County deserve the fastest path to justice not an experiment.”
According to Guilford County Sheriff’s Department Public Information Officer Max Benbassat, if there’s a case during a weekend or holiday when private labs are otherwise unavailable, and a DNA result is needed urgently, a Guilford County Sheriff’s Department officer can drive to South Carolina – where there’s a law enforcement agency that has a rapid DNA machine – and have the tests done there and get the results back very quickly.