A Battle Over Who Should Run Orange County’s DNA Lab

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Friday, September 3, 2010 | There is a running disagreement over who should oversee Orange County’s DNA crime lab, with two members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the grand jury holding three separate opinions on the issue.

Currently, the lab, a component of the Orange County Crime Lab, is under a three-way management partnership between the sheriff-coroner, the district attorney and the county chief executive, Tom Mauk.

The grand jury wants to see the DNA crime lab returned to the sole purview of the sheriff-coroner. Meanwhile, Supervisor John Moorlach wants to see an independent medical examiner formed to oversee the lab, and Supervisor Bill Campbell wants the lab to remain under the three-way management arrangement.

The triangle of opposition revealed itself this week as the supervisors rejected the grand jury report’s recommendation and supervisors Moorlach and Campbell butted heads.

In its official response to the grand jury report, the board turned down a recommendation to boot the lab’s co-managers and return oversight solely to the sheriff. The grand jury report said employee morale took a hit when the district attorney and the CEO jumped in to co-manage with the sheriff.

Moorlach was the only supervisor to vote against the response.

Moorlach and Campbell briefly debated forming the independent medical examiner. Moorlach explained his position using a hypothetical serial killer, saying such a conflict of interest could undermine objective forensic science.

“We’ve now finally arrested a serial killer, and there is something unethical — some evidence was forced to come to certain conclusions, this serial killer is released on a technicality. Now what do we do?” Moorlach asked.

Moorlach also said that the independent medical examiner would be the “cutting edge” approach. But a county CEO report on the idea found cutting edge might result in cost increases.

The report’s finding of “potential” cost increases wasn’t good enough for Moorlach. With the green light of the other supervisors, including Campbell, Moorlach pushed to have staff further analyze the cost of forming the independent medical examiner. Moorlach doesn’t believe a change in organization would have such an impact.

“I’m kind of curious as an accountant, where are the increased costs?” Moorlach asked.

Moorlach also cited a report from the National Academy of Sciences, which discussed conflict of interest concerns. Voice of OC Reporter Tracy Wood featured the report in her story on another DNA crime lab run by the District Attorney’s Office.

Through that lab, the DA has been running a controversial “spit and acquit” program, where minor crimes are dismissed in exchange for a DNA sample.

Campbell’s main point was that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has the budget to worry about, and attempting to carve out the crime lab would be a distraction.

“If she [Sheriff Sandra Hutchens] has to figure out how to hand that off to somebody else, that’s a distraction. That’s why I’m opposed to doing it now,” Campbell said. “When times were better, nice idea to think about. Now’s not the time to think about it.”

Campbell also disagrees with Moorlach’s interpretation of the report. He said that, from his recollection, the report was specifically about DNA crime labs, and since the crime lab has other responsibilities, Moorlach’s argument falls apart.

But the National Academy of Sciences report doesn’t just focus on DNA science.

From Wood’s story:

“Scientific and medical assessment conducted in forensic investigations should be independent of law enforcement efforts either to prosecute criminal suspects or even to determine whether a criminal act has indeed been committed,” said a 2009 Forensic Sciences report from the National Academy of Sciences.

“Administratively,” the report added, “this means that forensic scientists should function independently of law enforcement administrators. The best science is conducted in a scientific setting as opposed to a law enforcement setting.”

When pressed on the report’s broader recommendation that forensic science and law enforcement be separated, Campbell said the report’s theory doesn’t apply to Orange County because the Sheriff’s Department has never been implicated in meddling with forensic science.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org, and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.


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