Barbara Byrne Legal Aid Society
The unit is the Legal Aid Society`s innovative forensic group dedicated to ensuring strong representation of its clients and fighting to keep unreliable forensic science out of court. Recognizing the growing importance of dna`s role in law enforcement, Criminal Practice launched the DNA Unit in 2013. The unit, which consists of eleven full-time lawyers, a scientist and a paralegal, supports lawyers throughout legal assistance who represent clients across the city in cases with DNA evidence. The DNA unit also trained members of the Defence Bar from across the country on forensic DNA issues such as cross-examination of an analyst. probabilistic genotyping; admissibility procedures; 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 Innocence Project/NACDL-sponsored Forensic College and the annual conference of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice/California Association of Public Defenders. The DNA Unit ensures that our clients` interests are represented in matters of judicial policy when regulations or laws threaten their rights. Members of the unit sent 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 Forensic Science Commission on a proposal to approve family research.
Members have also testified before numerous New York City Council hearings on medico-legal issues; filed an OIL litigation in which the Legal Aid Society received more than 800 pages of files containing OCME case handling errors; analyzed and commented on the New York draft law on laboratory defects; was a member of the DNA Consensus Body of Standards Board of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS); and filed amicus Curiae briefs on important issues of forensic science in California with the Second Circuit in New York. Finally, the unit continued to address DNA and forensic issues faced by clients through remote representation and worked to protect the genetic privacy of George Floyd protesters arrested by the NYPD. The DNA unit has filed significant CHALLENGES to the admissibility of DNA evidence, including the successful exclusion of STRmix`s results under a New York State law in People v. Hillary, a case that involved conflicting results from two probabilistic genotyping programs and attracted national attention. The DNA unit also argued in People v. Collins, 49 Misc.3d 595 (Kings Co. Sup. Ct. 2015), a Frye hearing at which eleven scientists testified, including some of the world`s best-known and most respected forensic scientists.
The court ruled that the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner`s (OCME) low copy number (LCN) DNA tests and the Forensic Statistical Tool (TSF), an internal statistical method for complex mixtures that cannot be completely separated, were both inadmissible. The DNA unit also participated in the lawyers` strike squad working on habeas corpus efforts to free people from dangerous remand on Rikers Island and reduce the prison population in anticipation of COVID-19, which is negatively impacting inmates. The DNA unit defends those affected by discriminatory, biased or unfair forensic analysis by defending clients, preventing harm to communities by educating stakeholders, and tracking changes in policies and laws. The DNA unit also kept away from other questionable forensic analyses. In 2020, DNA unit attorney Kyla Wells, along with Bronx employee attorney Nicolas Schumann-Ortega, and colleagues from the Bronx Defenders, conducted New York State`s first evidence on the admissibility of firearms and corresponding tool brand models. This litigation led to the landmark decision, People v. Ross, 68 Misc.3d 899 (Sup. Ct. Bronx Co.
2020), who concluded that this type of evidence was not admissible in court. The Unit`s litigation has also resulted in significant limitations to evidence of comparison of harmful fingerprints and tool marks. In this unprecedented time when COVID-19 has brought immense uncertainty to both the workplace and the justice system, the Legal Aid Society`s DNA unit has continued to serve the New York community virtually. While advising lawyers from all of the legal aid society`s practice groups in cases where forensics plays an important role, the unit has also undertaken its own projects to help New Yorkers. The DNA unit has also presented at national scientific conferences, including presentations on scientific topics in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Members also presented the need for a review of the source code at the 2018 Green Mountain DNA Conference; and the impact of visits on probability rates and false positives with the TSP at the Proceedings of the 2015 International Symposium on Error Management in Forensic Science, organized by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Educating the defense and scientific communities on issues related to forensic DNA The DNA Unit held its first series of summer trainings for hundreds of defense lawyers from across the country, providing in-depth technical knowledge and practical advice on forensic topics such as DNA evidence, probabilistic genotyping, proof of fingerprints and marks of firearms and tools.