Tag Archives: dna expert testimony

Defense Fails at Attempt to Feature DNA Expert Witness in Grim Sleeper Serial Killer Trial

The Grim Sleeper serial killer trial in Los Angeles, California experienced another delay this week when attorneys for the defense were blocked from using testimony from a DNA expert witness.  According to the presiding judge, the defense team’s DNA expert was not a credible witness and could not contribute his analysis to the high profile serial murder trial.

Grim Sleeper Serial Killer Murder Trial

Lonnie Franklin, Jr. was arrested in 2010 based on forensic DNA evidence linking him to the so-called Grim Sleeper serial killer murders.  The Grim Sleeper, named because of an apparent 14-year break between 1988 and 2002, has been positively linked to the murder of 10 African American women in the Los Angeles area and the attempted murder of 1 victim who survived.  Franklin was arrested after DNA evidence collected from his son during prosecution for an unrelated crime matched a familial DNA search police investigators used to solve the Grim Sleeper case.  Since his 2010 arrest, Franklin’s capital murder trial has experienced a number of delays with attorneys on both sides building forensic cases in preparation.

Defense attorneys for Franklin have focused a portion of their case on linking some of the alleged Grim Sleeper murders to Chester Turner – a serial killer who is already convicted and sitting on California’s Death Row.  According to Franklin’s lead attorney Seymour Amster, DNA could connect some of the attacks – one of which resulted in murder – to Turner and not to Franklin.  Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy rejected the attempt, however, and ruled the defense’s DNA expert witness was not qualified to testify.

Grim Sleeper Defense Expert Rejected before Trial

Earlier this year in a pre-trial hearing, defense attorneys for alleged Grim Sleeper serial killer Lonnie Franklin, Jr. called DNA expert witness Lawrence Sowers to link forensic evidence found at the scene of murders to men other than Franklin.  Although the idea of using a DNA expert witness to use forensic evidence to suggest other perpetrators is valid, Dr. Sowers fell short in his efforts to help Franklin’s defense by admitting to conducting last minute re-calculations after hearing testimony from a separate DNA expert and backtracking on claims he made during testimony.

Dr. Sowers initially reported his DNA analysis found samples from other men – including convicted murder Chester Turner – at “several” of the crime scenes where police investigators gathered evidence which would eventually lead them to Lonnie Franklin, Jr.  During his testimony at a pre-trial evidence hearing held this week, however, Sowers backtracked and admitted to recalculating his figures after hearing a different DNA expert witness take the stand.  Defense attorney Seymour Amster attempted to postpone the hearing after Sowers began to hedge on his initial DNA analysis, but Judge Kennedy rejected the request in order to give prosecutors a full opportunity to critically examine Dr. Sower’s work and his qualifications as a DNA expert witness.

District attorneys prosecuting Franklin responded to Sowers’s DNA expert testimony by picking apart his calculation and investigation procedures, and asking pointed questions about his education and training which qualified him as an expert.  After testimony, Judge Kennedy sided with prosecutors and found Sowers “woefully failed to meet the generally accepted methods of the scientific community in the area of forensic DNA analysis.”  After this week’s rejection of the defense’s proposed DNA expert witness, attorneys for Franklin will not be allowed to use forensic expert testimony which directly points to other suspects.

Grim Sleeper Trial to Resume in December

Judge Kennedy postponed the Grim Sleeper murder trial of Lonnie Franklin, Jr. until December 15th, 2015 after almost a year of delays and evidentiary hearings.  The trial was scheduled to begin in January of 2015 after nearly five years of preparation, but has experienced multiple postponements during a contentious pre-trial period.  Franklin, Jr. has pleaded not guilty to the Grim Sleeper murders, and faces the death penalty if convicted of the killings.

Jesse Matthew Sexual Assault Trial Ends with Alford Plea After DNA Expert Testimony

The high profile sexual assault trial of alleged serial predator Jesse Matthew Jr came to a surprising end this week when the defendant withdrew his defense and was subsequently convicted by a Virginia judge.  In the face of expert witness testimony linking his DNA to the scene of the attack, Matthew elected to give up on his case, leading to a conviction that could result in consecutive life sentences.

Jesse Matthew Jr. Linked Forensically to Sexual Assaults and Murders

On a late evening in September of 2005, a 26-year-old woman studying in America from overseas was walking home in the dark when she was attacked from behind by an unknown stranger and dragged into a dark grassy area.  Once off the path, he began sexually assaulting her, threatening to kill her if she screamed before suddenly running away, possibly due to approaching headlights that temporarily illuminated the area where the attack took place.

For nearly a decade the case remained unsolved without any leads on the identity of the attacker, but the situation changed late last year when investigators in Fairfax, VA met with Matthew while looking into the 2014 disappearance and death of University of Virginia student, Hannah Graham.  According to police and prosecutors, Matthew Jr. left traces of DNA on Graham’s body that matched the 2005 victim.  Matthew has also been linked forensically to the body of a murdered Virginia Tech student, Morgan Harrington.

During his trial for the 2005 sexual assault, forensic experts connected the DNA discovered in subsequent investigations to the victim, causing Matthew to enter an Alford plea and drop his defense case.  An Alford plea means the defendant does not admit guilt, but concedes that the prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him and gives up on his defense strategy. As a result of the plea, Judge David Schell found sufficient evidence to convict Matthew of attempted capital murder, abduction with intent to defile, and sexual assault.

Forensic Expert Witnesses Link DNA from Assault to Jesse Matthew

The prosecution began its case with testimony from witnesses to the scene of the attack and the victim herself, however, were unable to get a positive visual ID on Matthew.  In order to connect the defendant to the crime, prosecutors relied on testimony from an expert witness who was able to identify DNA under the victim’s fingernails as a likely match to Matthew’s DNA collected during investigation into his alleged subsequent assaults.  According to Dr. Elizabeth Ballard, a forensic scientist who is an expert in DNA analysis, the chance of the DNA collected from the victim not belonging to Matthew is less than one in 7.2 billion.

In an effort to argue against the DNA evidence discussed by the prosecution’s expert witness, the defense pointed out that the presence of Matthew’s DNA under the victim’s fingernail was not sufficient to tie him to the crime.  Pointing out that the DNA could have been transferred to the victim inadvertently by contact with a common surface, defense attorneys attempted to argue for reasonable doubt in the fact of strong expert testimony that forensically linked Matthew to the attack.  Before defense attorneys could mount a more stringent defense, however, Matthew voluntarily withdrew his case and entered the Alford plea.  Under the terms of the plea, Matthew could face up to 3 consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole.

Jesse Matthew Faces Capital Murder Charges in College Student Murder

The resolution of the 2005 sexual assault case against Matthew does not conclude his legal case.  Prosecutors have already charged him with capital murder for the assault and killing of Hannah Graham in 2014.  Although prosecutors in the Graham case cannot use Matthew’s conviction against him during trial, if he is found guilty for the murder of Graham the State can use the sexual assault case to demonstrate likelihood of future dangerousness – an element necessary to earning the death penalty in Virginia.

Details of the Graham case have not been revealed because a trial date has not been set, but DNA expert testimony will definitely play an important role in that prosecution as well because Matthew has been linked forensically to the Hannah’s remains.  Matthew has not yet been charged for the fatal assault on Morgan Harrington, which is the third attack that he his DNA has been linked to by forensic expert investigators.  Matthews will be sentenced under the terms of his Alford plea later this month.