Projects, Units & Initiatives
The DNA Unit advocates for people targeted by discriminatory, biased, or unfair forensics by defending clients, preventing harm to communities through educating stakeholders, and pursuing changes in policy and law.
The Unit is the Legal Aid Society’s pioneering forensics group dedicated to ensuring vigorous representation of its clients and fighting to keep unreliable forensic science out of court. In recognition of the increasing importance of the role DNA has in criminal prosecutions, the Criminal Practice created the DNA Unit in 2013. Composed of eleven full-time attorneys, a scientist, and a paralegal, the Unit assists attorneys across Legal Aid representing clients citywide in cases involving DNA evidence.
During the unprecedented times where COVID-19 has created immense uncertainty in both the workspace and court systems, the DNA Unit at the Legal Aid Society has continued to serve the New York community virtually. Whilst advising attorneys across all practice groups at the Legal Aid Society on cases where forensics play a significant role, the Unit also took on projects of its own to help New Yorkers.
The DNA Unit held its first ever Summer Training Series for hundreds of criminal defense attorneys from around the country, providing in-depth technical knowledge and practice tips on forensic topics including DNA evidence, probabilistic genotyping, fingerprint evidence and firearms and toolmarks. For Legal Aid Society attorneys, the DNA Unit again put on its week-long Litigating Forensics, a comprehensive practicum on how to read and analyze DNA results and put that knowledge to work during cross-examination.
The DNA Unit also participated in the strike force of attorneys working on habeas corpus efforts to release people from dangerous pre-trial detention at Rikers Island, and to decrease jail populations in anticipation of COVID-19 negatively impacting those imprisoned.
Finally, the Unit continued addressing DNA and forensic issues that clients faced via remote representation, and worked to safeguard the genetic privacy of the George Floyd protestors who were arrested by the NYPD.
Keeping Forensic Sciences Fair And Just
The DNA Unit has litigated significant admissibility challenges to DNA evidence, including successfully precluding STRmix results under a NY State statute in People v. Hillary, a case which has involved conflicting results of two probabilistic genotyping programs and received national attention. The DNA Unit also litigated, in People v. Collins, 49 Misc.3d 595 (Kings Co. Sup. Ct. 2015), a Frye hearing in which eleven scientists testified, including some of the most well-known and respected forensic scientists in the world. The court ruled that the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner’s (OCME) low copy number (LCN) DNA testing and Forensic Statistical Tool (FST), an in-house statistical method for complex mixtures that cannot be completely separated out, were both inadmissible.
The DNA Unit has also kept other questionable forensics out of court. In 2020, DNA Unit attorney Kyla Wells, along with Bronx staff attorney Nicolas Schumann-Ortega and colleagues from the Bronx Defenders, conducted New York State’s first evidentiary hearing into the admissibility of Firearms and Toolmark pattern matching. This litigation resulted in the landmark decision, People v. Ross, 68 Misc.3d 899 (Sup. Ct. Bronx Co. 2020), which held that this type of evidence was not admissible in court. The Unit’s litigation also led to important limitations on prejudicial fingerprint and toolmark comparison evidence.
Fighting for Policy Reforms, Adequate Oversight and Genetic Privacy Protections
The DNA Unit ensures that our clients’ interests are represented on forensic policy issues when regulation or legislation threatens their rights. Unit members have submitted public comments to the National Institute of Standards and Technology calling for a moratorium on the use of unfair forensic algorithms and to the New York State Commission on Forensic Science on a proposal to authorize familial searching. Members have also testified before numerous New York City Council hearings on forensic issues; initiated FOIL litigation where the Legal Aid Society obtained over 800 pages of records that include OCME’s casework errors; analyzed and commented on proposed New York City legislation concerning lab errors; served on the DNA Consensus Body of Standards Board of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS); and submitted amicus curiae briefs concerning significant issues in forensic science in appellate cases from California to the Second Circuit in New York.
Educating the Defense and Scientific Communities about Issues with Forensic DNA
The DNA Unit created Questioning Forensics, a one-of-a-kind, national annual forensics conference for defenders. QF explores cutting edge forensic topics, including “Inside the Black Box;” “Lawyers, Damn Lawyers and Statistics;” “Keeping Science Honest in the Age of ‘Alternative Facts,’” “Decoding the DNA Case.” Every year we award the Magnus Mukoro Award for Integrity in Forensic Science. In 2022, the DNA Unit also created the Barbara Byrne keynote lecture to honor our colleague. The DNA Unit also created Litigation Forensics, a unique week-long skills training designed to provide attorneys with real life experience cross-examining scientific experts at trial.
The DNA Unit has also trained members of the defense bar from across the country on forensic DNA topics such as cross-examining an analyst; probabilistic genotyping; admissibility litigation; and genetic privacy issues. The Unit, for example, created a “Cross to Kill” training, sponsored by the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; and provided training at the nationally-attended Innocence Project/NACDL-sponsored Forensic College, and the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice/California Association of Public Defenders annual conference.
The DNA Unit has also presented at nationally-attended scientific conferences, including presenting on scientific issues in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Annual Meeting. Members also presented on the need for review of source code at the 2018 Green Mountain DNA conference; and the effect of drop-in on likelihood ratios and false positives with the FST at the Proceedings of the 2015 International Symposium on Forensic Science Error Management, hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Last Updated: 25 January 2022
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