DA and Supervisors’ Chairman Clash Over DNA Lab Oversight

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

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.