DNA Contamination Threatened Conviction of Innocent Man
by Kevin Bliss
The NYC Medical Examiner’s office (“ME”) reviewed the DNA analysis procedure in a burglary case that was the only evidence used to charge Darrell Harris with the crime. They found that the DNA sample could have been contaminated, but only after Harris lost his job and $25,000 in legal fees.
Police responded on December 19, 2018, to a Queens, New York, break-in. DNA samples were collected off the window sill and sent to a lab for testing. The results indicated it was Harris’ DNA, and he was charged with the crime.
Harris had earlier pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor forcible touching charge of an 18-year-old woman. A Grenadian immigrant who had earned U.S. citizenship, Harris had obtained employment with Jet Blue at JFK Airport and pleading to five years’ probation on a misdemeanor allowed him to keep this job.
The Port Authority told Harris that with his pending felony charge, he could not maintain his job. He had to quit and pay $25,000 to an attorney for representation in a case that could earn him up to four years in prison. Harris continued to assert his innocence throughout the proceedings. “DNA is good in some ways,” he said. “But, it’s never 100%, and in my case you had no other evidence, no eyewitnesses. Yet, they were ready to incarcerate me.”
Harris submitted his cellphone and E-Z pass records to show he was at a side job as a disc jockey in New Jersey at the time of the incident. His parents gave statements saying they helped him pack his equipment for the job.
This prompted Assistant District Attorney Eric Rosenbaum to ask the ME’s office to reevaluate the test. The ME determined that Harris’ forcible touching DNA sample was processed just prior to the burglary sample. He concluded that the burglary sample could have been contaminated. The DNA sample was recalled and charges were dropped.
Aja Worthy-Davis, spokeswoman for the ME’s office, said that testing guidelines have since been clarified for better accuracy. Terri Rosenblatt of the Legal Aid Society’s DNA unit said the city’s unregulated DNA collection and database could cause more cases of this nature.
“Given the NYPD’s rampant DNA collection of countless New Yorkers, this person could have been nearly anyone ... Lawmakers have an obligation to end this completely unauthorized practice before another New Yorker is wrongfully arrested and prosecuted,” she said.
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