DNA Database of NYC’s Chief Medical Examiner Plagued with Errors
Darrell Harris was arrested for a home burglary that occurred in December 2018.
A detective from the New York Police Department (“NYPD”) told Harris his DNA had been recovered from a window of the home. Even though the arrest cost Harris his job at the John F. Kennedy Airport, he paid $25,000 for a lawyer and provided an alibi placing him in New Jersey when the burglary was committed. Then, in June 2019, police dropped the charges.
An investigation revealed that a lab technician from New York City’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner (“OCME”) had cross-contaminated the DNA sample from the window with a sample Harris had earlier provided in a sexual misconduct investigation.
“Errors like these, and the lab’s inability to detect them, should concern the public,” said Terri Rosenblatt, staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society (“Society”). “More and more often, criminal cases rise and fall on DNA evidence.”
The Society filed a Freedom of Information Law request and learned of other errors at the OCME’s DNA lab, including:
• a man who was wrongfully arrested for rape based on a confirmed DNA match from the lab (the man provided an ironclad alibi — he was in prison when the rape occurred);
• DNA profiles in the database taken from witnesses and victims (these are prohibited by law);
• DNA profiles in the database that were taken from minors without parental consent (again, prohibited by law); and
• DNA profiles in the database from deceased persons and victims of homicide.
The Society, along with NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, are insisting the City Council impose tougher regulations on the OCME lab. “These changes are common sense and incorporate feedback we have gathered without compromising the ability for officers to successfully identify criminals, build strong cases and bring justice for victims,” Shea said in a New York Times article. Currently, the OCME is required to disclose errors to the City Council only if one or more of the following occurred: (1) intentional analyst misconduct leading to fabricated results; (2) significant errors affecting the accuracy of a report; (3) a failure to follow protocols that affected a report’s accuracy; or (4) misleading statements in testimony by laboratory employees.