Saturday, October 27, 2012

Is there a definitive source of criminal evidence that cannot be disputed?

The criminal case that just won't die

Learning about Michael Marino, who likely died some 36 years ago and had his killer put to death back in 1994, resurrected an old question in my mind.

How reliable are all these claims of scientific evidence that we hear being used in courtrooms? Do we ever truly know what happened in instances where an improper act occurred that warranted criminal charges?

MARINO IS ONE of the 33 people whom John Gacy was said to have strangled. His body allegedly was among the ones that were found by police investigators in the crawl space of Gacy’s home.

His body was identified at the time (the late 1970s) through that staple of criminal evidence – the dental records. The teeth in the skull recovered matched up to the records of the teeth of Marino, who was 14 in 1976 when he disappeared.

Yet according to the news reports airing these days, Marino’s mother always had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right. She wasn’t sure that the gravesite she was visiting all these years really had her son lying at rest.

Her feeling never went away, and it is what ultimately caused the remains believed to be those of Marino to be exhumed. A sample of DNA was taken, and compared to a DNA sample from the mother.

THE CONCLUSION? THERE’S no way that the woman is the mother of whoever it really is that has lay in a grave all these years with a Marino headstone identifying it.

The dental records were wrong. What next? We’re going to learn that fingerprints can’t be trusted!

Or maybe DNA itself isn’t the foolproof bit of evidence that we’ve been led to believe – particularly by all those television dramas that invariably have evidence being analyzed in all kinds of funky ways so that the TV cops can arrogantly proclaim the guilt of the person they arrested.

I realize that those TV dramas are usually phony like other entertainment programs – the bits of evidence found at real crime scenes rarely produce such definitive results as they always seem to do in the hands of people like Emily Procter, the actress of one of those CSI-type programs who looks much better than any real criminal law person I have ever met.

BUT SHOULD WE be placing such trust in genetic evidence that most of us don’t really understand – which means we’re forced to take the word of a lab technician?

It reminds me of the first criminal case I ever covered in which DNA evidence was used – it was at the Criminal Courts building in 1989 and involved the rape and strangulation of a young woman.

A young man was arrested, ultimately convicted, and the last I knew was still serving a natural life prison term – even though his mother was convinced that her son didn’t do it. Her nephew (the defendant’s cousin) did it, she said.

Even though prosecutors claimed that the DNA was definitive enough to show that it just couldn’t be!

THE JURY BOUGHT it. Yet I also remember a year later covering a criminal trial in the courts of Sangamon County (that’s the Springfield area) where the defense attorney kept mocking the idea of DNA evidence – repeatedly referring to them as “spaghetti strands” that don’t mean anything.

I find it interesting that in the case of Marino, people are taking the DNA evidence as all-definitive – even though it means that dental records now have to be questioned. Are we going to start getting a lot of claims from other people whose cases involved dental records saying that those were flawed as well?

And what happens when future technology comes up with something more precise than the current DNA tests. Will we someday learn that a lot of our “absolutely, positively guilty” verdicts we’re reaching now are somehow flawed?


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