$1 Million Settlement for NYC Crime Lab Tech Who Blew Whistle on Use of Untested DNA Tests for Decades
by Ed Lyon
Television crime dramas like Bones and CSI that depict sterile, efficient crime labs seem to be little more than good art imitating bad life as instance after instance of shoddy work and poor conditions from Wisconsin [CLN, March 2019, p.30] to Texas [CLN, March 2019, pp.40-41], coupled with an overall lack of unitized standards [CLN, January 2019, p.35], open people’s eyes to the real world of forensic science.
Just when conditions cannot seem to sink any lower, New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (“OCME”) has been outed as having extensively used a DNA testing method for over 20 years without ever conducting a scientific study to prove its validity.
Low Copy Number (“LCN”) DNA testing uses miniscule bits of DNA from multiple donors taken from items found at crime scenes. The items could be firearm grips, bludgeons, or a purse. The city’s OCME began using this method in 2006 and quit using it in 2017. During this time, the OCME represented that the LCN testing method had been vetted by proper scientific analysis but refused to release the results. “OCME stands behind its science,” stated medical examiner spokesperson Ana Worthy-Davis, referring to the questioned method.
Marina Stajic, PhD., would prove the OCME’s LCN DNA science had not, in fact, a single leg to stand on—behind or in front. Stajic had directed the OCME’s toxicology lab since 1986 and knew first hand that no scientific testing had ever validated the LCN method.
In 2004, New York’s governor appointed Stajic to serve on a state forensic science panel. She served these two masters well, keeping them separate until in 2014 when she cast a vote her OCME peers disliked. Another forensic panel member, noted exoneration lawyer Barry Scheck, had been trying to obtain a copy of the validation study on LCN DNA testing. It was being used in court cases, so Scheck was concerned. Stajic cast a vote with Scheck and another defense lawyer to compel the OCME to release the LCN DNA validation study. The vote failed to carry a majority, but the result was devastating because now it was “discovered” that the validation study had never been done despite the OCME’s claims.
Reprisals against Stajic by her peers were immediate and brutal. Chief Medical Examiner Barbara Sampson responded “Hold me down,” in an email to a coworker. “Stajic sucks,” emailed an OCME lawyer. Retaliation was nearly as swift. Stajic was soon terminated.
Stajic filed a whistleblower suit, which the city quickly settled for $1,000,000. “My concern was ... there could be wrongful convictions. And if the wrong people were convicted, that would mean the wrong person would be walking free,” stated Stajic after the settlement was announced.