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August 20, 2019

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Metro agrees to pay for more DNA retesting if needed

Mistakes from crime lab already cost agency $1.5 million

Two crime-lab miscues, including one that helped imprison an innocent man, are going to cost Metro Police more than the $1.5 million settlement already paid to the former inmate.

Metro’s Fiscal Affairs Committee approved paying up to $700,000 over three years to redo DNA tests if Metro’s forensics lab determines it’s needed. Assured that funding would come from federal grants and court fees, Fiscal Affairs members chose two independent labs — Laboratory Corporation of America of Burlington, N.C., and Sorenson Forensics of Salt Lake City — to do the retesting.

“I’m much in favor of redoing them all,” said Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, one of the members of the board, which is made up of two people from the County Commission, two from the Las Vegas City Council and a private-citizen chairman.

Click to enlarge photo

Steve Sisolak

“If there was one (error), we’ve got to make sure there aren’t six more. The convicted are entitled to this and hopefully it will be done quickly,” Sisolak said.

In the wrongful imprisonment case, Dwayne Jackson served almost four years in prison for robbery before his release in 2006. In July, Fiscal Affairs awarded him a settlement of $1.5 million.

Metro took another look at Jackson’s case after being contacted in November 2010 by the California Justice Department, which found blood from a California offender matched a sample from the 2001 robbery in Clark County. That offender was Howard Grissom, Jackson’s cousin and another suspect in the 2001 robbery.

After reviewing the case, Metro determined that the DNA evidence from Grissom and Jackson had been unintentionally switched.

Terry Cook, the forensic scientist who handled the case, is no longer with the crime lab, Sisolak said.

Now, some 330 DNA cases Cook handled between 1999 and 2004 will be reviewed, said Linda Krueger, executive director of Metro’s Police Criminalistics Bureau.

Asked if it was likely that this was one mistake that was never repeated, Krueger was definitive.

“As a scientists, I can’t say ‘hey, it’s my gut feeling (that it was a one-time mistake),’” she replied. “That’s not good enough.”

The other incident, Metro said, involved a forensic technician who covered up a mistake that occurred during DNA testing. Though the technician, Kristina Paulette, corrected the mistake, she was fired in May.

The forensic lab will review 519 of the cases Paulette handled between 2006 and 2010 to decide if they should be sent to the outside labs for re-analysis.

At the Fiscal Affairs meeting, Metro presented data showing their backlog of cases and how many need to be retested. It also revealed a backlog in the forensic lab. In the first quarter of fiscal year 2011, there were 1,683 backlogged DNA requests.

Sisolak said the backlog grew, in part, because the lab is doing its regular caseload as well as reviewing the hundreds of cases handled by Cook and Paulette.

Mistakes with DNA testing aren’t new. “You’re going to have some mistakes because people are doing the work,” Krueger said.

One of the labs chosen to do some of the retesting had a recent blunder. In 2010, LabCorp was contracted to do DNA tests for a company called 23andMe, which offers personal DNA analysis for people who want to learn more about medical conditions and ancestry.

In that testing, a tray with the samples of 96 clients was misplaced and clients received the wrong results. New procedures were put into place to keep the same mistake from happening again, 23andMe said.

DNA testing has also become a valuable tool for law enforcement and the accused. Over the years, it is estimated that DNA has exonerated almost 300 people nationwide.

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