DA and Supervisors’ Chairman Clash Over DNA Lab Oversight

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas (left) and county supervisors' Chairman Todd Spitzer. (Photos by: Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas (left) and county supervisors' Chairman Todd Spitzer. (Photos by: Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

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A discussion item on the Orange County Board of Supervisors agenda this week regarding the county’s DNA programs morphed into heated debates on the dais, with supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer again firing shots at District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

The debate had its origins at a supervisors’ workshop last month when Supervisor Andrew Do questioned why the DA’s office is involved in DNA analysis.

Currently, the county’s DNA 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 administration.  Additionally, the DA operates his own DNA collection program, in which DNA profiles are analyzed by a forensic scientist who works in his office.

It is a unique arrangement in California and one that has generated controversy over the years, especially when it comes to the DA’s office’s involvement in collecting and storing DNA samples from people accused of crimes.

It seems like a “conflict of interest” for a prosecutor’s office to be in charge of collecting and analyzing DNA samples while also testifying about them in court, Do said at last month’s workshop.

This week, Spitzer took Do’s argument a step further and, citing a decade-old case, questioned whether the DA’s power over the DNA lab could lead to manipulation of evidence in criminal cases.

He pointed to testimony by a county crime lab scientist that DA prosecutors tried to pressure her to change her findings regarding DNA samples in a 2005 carjacking case.

The forensic scientist, Danielle Wieland, testified in a 2008 deposition that when crime scene DNA didn’t match that of a man charged with the carjacking, the head of the DA’s DNA unit asked her to change her conclusion.

(Click here to read Wieland’s deposition.  The testimony about alleged pressuring by the DA’s office begins on page 68.)

The defendant, James Ochoa, was ultimately found to be innocent after spending 16 months behind bars.

“There needs to be a public discussion about whether or not” people putting evidence into court should be overseeing the collection and analysis of DNA evidence, Spitzer said.

Spitzer has also asked that his colleagues revisit a past grand jury report, which recommended that the lab’s oversight be reverted back to just the sheriff.

There’s been no love lost between Spitzer and Rackauckas in recent years. Spitzer was once a top deputy of the DA’s and considered his heir apparent. But the two have feuded openly since 2010, when Rackauckas fired Spitzer after Spitzer began investigating the Public Administrator’s office, where Peggy Buff, Rackauckas’ then-fiancée, worked.

And since Spitzer was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2012, he hasn’t hesitated to take aim at Rackauckas.

Recently, Spitzer has blasted the DA’s handling of the Seal Beach mass-murder case, called attention to efforts by the DA’s investigations chief to outsource part of his staff’s work to a longtime former colleague without disclosing their relationship, and critiqued Rackauckas’ request for county funds to cover $4 million he owes to the ACLU for losing a lawsuit in which an appeals court said the DA violated constitutional rights.

On Tuesday, Rackauckas aggressively defended his DNA program, saying his office’s efforts have been highly successful at helping solve crimes.

“It’s been a very powerful investigative tool,” Rackauckas said of DNA evidence, adding that his local program has led to 525 “hits” in various databases.

As for questions regarding his staff’s involvement in comparing DNA samples for matches, Rackauckas said the county crime lab performs a second “confirmatory” analysis that double-checks the DA staff’s work.

Regarding Spitzer’s statements, he accused the supervisor cherry picking one questionable case and defended his DNA unit director.

“You brought up an individual case here, and gone to some lengths…some lengths were gone [through] to besmirch the conduct and reputation and motivation of Camille Hill,” Rackauckas said.

Hill, a deputy district attorney, disputed Wieland’s testimony, saying she “in no way pressured” her, and that an investigation by the county CEO “found that her accusations were unfounded.”

Supervisor Shawn Nelson also expressed irritation with Spitzer’s bringing up of the old case and how it dominated the discussion.

“This is not why I showed up for the meeting today,” said Nelson said. “What does this deposition transcript even have to do with this subject matter? This is bizarre to me.”

“I don’t think it’s bizarre,” Spitzer replied, adding that questions about evidence manipulation were relevant to whether prosecutors should be overseeing evidence collection and analysis.

Supervisor Andrew Do, meanwhile, reiterated his concerns about the DA overseeing DNA evidence analysis.

“If that’s the structure in which that scientist works under, isn’t there…at least an appearance of undue influence?” Do asked.

“No, I don’t see it,” Rackauckas replied, saying that if his forensic scientist falsely identified a match, the confirmatory analysis from the county lab would exclude the person.  “So there’s a check on that.”

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

  • Paul Lucas

    If one had to submit a DNA sample for anything that is covered by Prop 47, they can have their DNA returned and taken out of the data base.

  • Rose72

    Is this the reason, the video of April 21 Board of Supervisors meeting is still not posted online on the county website for the public to view????
    And “Spitzer has also asked that his colleagues revisit a past grand jury report” ………..the Board of Supervisors have a history of ignoring the grand jury reports but it appears if they can use the results to benefit their own agenda, then suddenly they like and use the report results.

  • Tony Flores

    “If that’s the structure in which that scientist works under, isn’t there…at least an appearance of undue influence?” Do asked.
    While we all understand the issue and concern at hand here, I find it extremely incredible that Andrew Do is concerned about “an appearance of undue influence”. This from a man who is connected to Janet Nguyen and married to an OC Judge.

    • Trudy White

      Let’s not forget that Spitzer is married to an OC judge, too. Ah, Lady Justice is being entertained by the pillow talk, donchaknow?

  • Ltpar

    If it walks like a “conflict of interest” quacks like a “conflict of interest” one can be reasonable sure it is a “conflict of interest.” Neither the District Attorney or the Public Defender’s Office has any business being involved in processing of evidence to be presented in a Criminal Case. This is just another overreach in the power grab by the District Attorney. Voters should remember this in the next election.

  • Diego Vega

    “…an investigation by the county CEO ‘found that her accusations were unfounded.’”

    How many times have we read those words? EVERY CEO investigation of management and elected officials finds the accusations were unfounded. And then retaliation against the accuser begins as a warning to others.

    • Trudy White

      Exactly, Diego. That person is branded and deemed a liar, and their career is over, and even VoC won’t talk to them because of that brand.

  • Trudy White

    More of the same. Nelson, for once, has it right. While people are looking at this ,”OMG! There’s a pig in a tutu, dancinga HULA!, show, no one will be asking about the missing money from CalOptima or the fake campaign donations or anything else that shows just how structurally rotten this County’s government really is. Hope y’all enjoyed the performance, now pass the rancid popcorn.

  • David Zenger

    “Additionally, the DA operates his own DNA collection program, in which
    DNA profiles are analyzed by a forensic scientist who works in his
    office.”

    This causes confusion. For additional clarification, the DA’s in-house program is a device he uses to plea-bargain with accused: charges will be dropped if they submit DNA samples.

    There is no outside oversight that I am aware of and the opportunity for abuse is obvious. I am aware of a case where an innocent guy was being prosecuted on completely ridiculous trumped up charges; the cops had no witness, no evidence, no nothing. Rather than dropping the case as ludicrous, the DA tried to pursue it; his last stab? A trade; charges dropped for a saliva sample.