Crime Lab Confidential: DA and SFPD Withheld Damaging Memo About DNA Lab Failings

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Illustration by Pete Ryan.

On Feb. 9, 2010, San Francisco residents Emon Brown and Joc Wilson were acquitted of all charges in a double murder trial that had lasted five months. The outcome was undoubtedly a relief to the two men and a coup for the defense lawyers who had represented them. But it was a serious blow to prosecutors in the office of then-District Attorney Kamala Harris. The case against Brown and Wilson had been lost despite the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses to the killing and DNA evidence from the crime scene that matched the genetic profiles of both defendants.

The case's unexpected conclusion caught the attention of Rockne Harmon, a retired prosecutor who worked for decades in Alameda County. Harmon is recognized as one of the country's foremost experts on the use of DNA evidence in criminal cases. He was employed in the winter of 2010 as a consultant on DNA prosecutions for the San Francisco DA's office. At the time of his hiring in 2007, Harris had praised him as a "guru of DNA evidence."

“The full story — the full, true story — is still not out there,” veteran prosecutor Rockne Harmon says.
AFP/Getty Images
“The full story — the full, true story — is still not out there,” veteran prosecutor Rockne Harmon says.
According to a whistleblower, former SFPD Interim Chief Jeff Godown did not share an internal report critical of the crime lab with DOJ auditors.
© Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis
According to a whistleblower, former SFPD Interim Chief Jeff Godown did not share an internal report critical of the crime lab with DOJ auditors.

Harmon became convinced that a factor in the courtroom defeat had been shoddy forensic work and damaging testimony by Cherisse Boland, an analyst in the DNA unit of the San Francisco Police Department Crime Laboratory. Among other things, Boland had failed to disclose in her DNA testing write-up — and to the grand jury that initially indicted Brown and Wilson in 2008 — that the majority of the DNA found at the crime scene belonged to neither man, but to a third, unknown person she never sought to identify. When this lapse emerged at trial during Boland's cross-examination by defense lawyers, Harmon reasoned, her credibility in the eyes of jurors took a beating.

Harmon decided to write a formal critique of Boland as one section of a broad-ranging memorandum to his superiors on the workings of the crime lab's DNA unit. It was an appropriate time for such a review. The drug division of the lab — which operates independently of the DNA section — was already under scrutiny because of the actions of Debbie Madden, a narcotics analyst who had been caught stealing cocaine evidence for personal use.

In April 2010, auditors from the California Department of Justice were scheduled to visit the DNA lab to ensure it was complying with FBI-mandated standards for all forensic facilities that receive federal funding. In August, another major body that oversees forensic labs, the North Carolina-based American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB), would visit San Francisco's crime lab to renew its certification. When Harmon completed his memo at the end of March, he requested that the SFPD share the document with these outside inspectors, in the spirit of transparency, so they could be aware of the lab's shortcomings.

That didn't happen. Instead, the report was buried.

The SFPD never shared the document with auditors, and as time passed, the suppression of the memo took on more puzzling forms. In response to inquiries from the press and defense attorneys over the past six months, top police officials and prosecutors have denied the memo's existence or claimed it was not an official report, but an e-mail Harmon sent privately to an acquaintance.

It now appears that neither of these statements is true. After a long silence, Harmon — who left the San Francisco DA's office in July 2010 — has decided to tell the story of his critical memorandum, and express his frustration and disappointment at the false information supplied to the defense bar and the public by the DA's office and SFPD.

"I'm not pleased that the full story — the full, true story — is still not out there," Harmon says. "What happened is wrong, not following up on [the memo] or discussing it or sharing it. It is germane to future legal issues. It's just something I'm not used to seeing as a prosecutor."

Along with further documentation obtained by SF Weekly, the picture that emerges is of an ongoing pattern of misrepresentations by law enforcement officials regarding concerns about the workings of the crime lab's DNA unit. Among them:

• Harmon's full report has never been released. An incomplete document shared with SF Weekly and defense lawyers in December by the DA's office is an attachment to a larger memo on the functioning of the crime lab's DNA unit, according to Harmon. This memo, he says, was coauthored by Braden Woods, now head of the criminal division of the DA's office. Defense attorneys say the failure to disclose the entire document is a violation of prosecutors' ethical and legal obligations, since it could be relevant in cases involving DNA evidence.

• Past assertions about Harmon's memo by officials are directly contradicted by newly released records. In April, the San Francisco City Attorney's office, responding to a Sunshine Ordinance complaint filed by SF Weekly, forced the office of District Attorney George Gascón to turn over documentation revealing that Harmon originally sent his report to Russ Giuntini, who at the time was the chief staff attorney at the DA's office, second only to Harris. This belied statements from DA's office chief of operations Sharon Woo and former chief of administration Paul Henderson that Harmon's memo was only a private e-mail to an outside party.

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11 comments
Alferdonito4
Alferdonito4

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JanetteT
JanetteT

Not a surprise when SF city workers are involved: overpaid, lazy, and incompetent.There are about 27,000 SF city workers for 800,000 population. 40 years ago population was same and SF had 5,000 city workers. Morons hiring morons. In this dept. the employees just can't hide their incompetence.

Bev
Bev

Brilliant, article!!!! This is one of the best pieces of reporting I've seen in years, and it's a shock the major media outlets don't pick up on this. It's a great example of continued failures within the various departments of San Francisco. Often, these breakdowns occur because none other than our ongoing politicians who move from dept to dept or Board to dept. There are skeletons in everyone dept's closet. Being in the courts, and knowing all the players in this, I commend Mr. Harmon for standing up and calling it what it is: deception, unethical, you name it. In the article Mr. Harmon loudly proclaims, in case no one caught it, he'll turn over everything if Subpoenaed. Jeff Adachi, are you hearing his underlying "hint hint?" Unfortunately, this cannot be investigated by the Atty General's Office as Kamela is Attorney General; and I continue to hear she is non-responsive to Law Enforcement conference invites around the state regarding vital practices and policies. Expected, consider the track record here in SF. If I was the accrediting board from back east, I'd move to have this investigated by the FBI. There are some I suspect are going to have sleepless nights as this is just the tip of the ice berg.

Scientific Fire
Scientific Fire

The "accrediting board back east" could care less. They are part of the problem.

Clyde
Clyde

no surprise one more reason not to vote for Gascon as DA

SkV
SkV

Actually, this was under Kamela's watch.

Cheryl Meril
Cheryl Meril

It's a corrupt legal system, what do you expect? They're nothing more than a business enterprise out to protect their own interests.

 
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