DNA in bloody glove, hair may be tested by Md. lab


GERMANTOWN -- At a laboratory inside an anonymous-looking industrial park in rural Maryland, scientists may soon take delivery of a box containing a bloody glove and strands of O. J. Simpson's hair.

Managers at Cellmark Diagnostics are keeping mum. But since the local division of the British giant Zeneca Group PLC is the genetic tester of choice for the Los Angeles Police Department, Cellmark is likely to be the lab that helps solve the year's most notorious murder mystery.

Whoever does the tests, though, an expected challenge by Mr. Simpson's lawyers of the DNA "fingerprinting" biotechnology used here could influence the use of similar tests in thousands of other criminal cases nationwide.

And more. There's money riding on the performance of the Simpson DNA tests, too. Lots of it.

A successful DNA analysis of evidence in the Simpson case will likely prove a bonanza for Cellmark and its handful of competitors, many of whom have been struggling for years to overcome judicial mistrust of claims that DNA "fingerprints" are almost foolproof identification.

Because Mr. Simpson's legal team has already retained the nation's top critics of DNA identification techniques, the case could prove to be a watershed, said Greg Matheson, supervising criminalist of the LAPD's DNA unit.

If DNA evidence wins judicial approval in the Simpson case, "it can get through anywhere," Mr. Matheson said. "This is one heck of a test case."

It could also be one heck of a market. Unknown before 1987, DNA tests will be used in nearly 5,000 criminal cases this year. The potential is vast: It isn't used yet in most of the 24,000 homicides or 100,000 sexual assaults committed in the U.S. annually.

Most police investigators get their evidence tested for free by FBI or other government labs. But more than a quarter of all criminal DNA tests are done at private labs, which charge about $1,500 per case and advertise faster, cleaner results. Cellmark, the largest private criminal genetics lab, handles about 10 percent of the cases.

The Simpson case is already providing a boost to the private forensic DNA testing industry.

"We have gotten a number of calls directly as a result of the 'O. J.' case," said Michael Baird, vice president of lab operations at competitor Lifecodes Inc., in Stamford, Conn.

But those gains might be only temporary if DNA tests are judged to be unacceptable in the Simpson case. "DNA testing will be on trial along with O. J.," Mr. Baird said.

In 28 states, including Maryland, DNA testing has already passed similar trials, as legislatures or courts have decided that the tests are reliable. DNA testing has helped in the conviction of more than 600 felons, But it isn't always used to convict. In about a third of forensic DNA tests done so far, the analysis has exonerated a suspect.

In fact, DNA nonmatches have freed some improperly convicted felons. Kirk L. Bloodsworth, for example, was freed last year after serving nine years for the rape and murder of a young girl. A Cellmark test showed his semen did not match that found on the body.

Mark D. Stolorow, Cellmark's director of operations, said demand for evidence tests has grown steadily by 10 percent to 20 percent a year. "California is the linchpin," of the group of states skeptical of DNA laboratory methods and test validity, Mr. Stolorow said.

At issue in California courts: the methods scientists use to create andanalyze DNA "fingerprints." It is a delicate process in which scientists label microscopic samples of DNA found in evidence with radioactive markers, making X-ray pictures of four or five sampled genetic patterns, then comparing the bar code-like X-ray pictures with similar pictures of suspects' genes.

Critics of DNA testing say the process is rife with potential for error. A person sneezing in a laboratory could contaminate a DNA sample, for instance. (Deoxyribonucleic acid -- DNA -- is found in every cell of every living thing. In humans, it determines everything from hair color to disease susceptibility.)

And the statistics the labs use to estimate the odds of a random match are much too low, said Laurence Mueller, a population researcher at the University of California at Irvine who is critical of DNA tests.

The real odds of matching samples in any particular case might really be as low one in several thousand, not the one in several million that the labs swear to, he said.

In 1989, for example, in a nationwide test of DNA labs, Cellmark mistakenly matched two of 100 different samples. "This is a big deal," Mr. Mueller said. "They are claiming no one else on the face of the planet has the same pattern. But in one of 50 cases they incorrectly matched" DNA patterns.

Even backers of DNA testing wish labs would take more precautions. Victor McKusick, professor of medical genetics at Johns Hopkins University and chairman of a National Academy of Sciences study of DNA testing, said the science behind the testing is sound and should be embraced by the courts.

"It is puzzling to me that there is so much hesitation in accepting DNA fingerprinting," he said. "If done right, it is a very accurate and powerful method" of identifying criminals.

But, he added, concerns about errors "are always valid." In the 1992 NAS report, Dr. McKusick's panel suggested laboratories use more conservative estimates of the chances of matching sample patterns, a suggestion which is being adopted by Cellmark and other labs.

And Dr. McKusick said he wishes labs would mark seven, eight or even nine genetic sequences, to help eliminate the possibility of a random match.

But Cellmark's customers aren't bothered by the criticisms.

Mr. Matheson, of the LAPD, said Cellmark quickly cleared up the problems discovered by the 1989 test, and has passed many other proficiency tests since then.

Cellmark, one of the very first companies to offer DNA tests, has proven to be the LAPD's favorite DNA lab, he said. "They [Cellmark] are the ones we use the most. . . . We are comfortable with them," he said.

Does that mean Cellmark will analyze the Simpson evidence? "We are in the habit of using them."

Mr. Stolorow said he gets frustrated with the criticisms, and some judges' refusal to accept DNA evidence until there is consensus among the scientific community.

"The frustration level is extremely high" among DNA-testing converts like himself, Mr. Stolorow said, noting that the lab work behind other kinds of tests -- such as fingerprint analysis or blood typing -- isn't being questioned so rigorously.

But he is confident that, eventually, DNA testing will become universal in criminal investigations. "It is not a question of outcome," he said. "It is a question of time."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad