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Metro reviewing DNA cases after error led to wrongful conviction

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Steve Marcus

Sheriff Doug Gillespie speaks during a news conference at Metro Police offices July 7, 2011.

Updated Thursday, July 7, 2011 | 2:52 p.m.

Metro DNA Mistake

Sheriff Doug Gillespie is seen during a news conference at Metro Police offices July 7, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Metro video

A DNA mix-up caused by human error that led to the wrongful conviction of a man has prompted Metro Police to reanalyze more than 200 cases handled by a forensic scientist, officials announced Thursday.

Police said an accidental sample switch in Metro’s forensic lab incorrectly identified then-18-year-old Dwayne Jackson as the suspect in a 2001 robbery in the southeast valley. He served nearly four years in prison before his release in 2006.

“To say this error is regrettable would be an understatement,” Sheriff Doug Gillespie said at a news conference Thursday. “It’s unacceptable and not to our standards at the (Metro Police). There are no words I could say that will give back the time Mr. Jackson spent incarcerated.”

The error came to light in November when the California Justice Department contacted Metro to say that an offender in its system matched the DNA profile of forensic evidence collected from a blue, hooded sweatshirt the suspect wore during the robbery. A national DNA database used by law enforcement agencies identified the match.

Police said that information triggered a seven-month process of evaluating the case and re-examining DNA evidence to confirm that a mistake had occurred.

The DNA from the sweatshirt matched Jackson’s cousin, Howard Grissom, who also was considered a suspect immediately after the robbery, authorities said.

The crime occurred Nov. 6, 2001, when a masked robber entered a southeast valley home occupied by a woman and her two daughters, police said. The suspect, who was wearing a blue, hooded sweatshirt and ski mask and carrying a baseball bat, took cash and credit cards from the woman’s purse.

He forced the woman and children into the family’s vehicle and made her drive him to her bank to obtain money, police said. Meanwhile, the woman’s husband and son returned home to find an empty house with doors open and a vehicle missing.

The husband began scouting the neighborhood and found his wife driving back with the man still in the vehicle, police said. The man fled, but police later apprehended two men — Jackson and Grissom — who fit the description that was given, while they were riding bicycles in the neighborhood, police said.

Grissom will remain in a California prison, where he is serving a lengthy sentence for an unrelated crime, police said.

Metro officials said they haven’t personally spoken with Jackson, but they have been handling the situation with his attorneys — a course of action Gillespie said was “appropriate” for the circumstances.

The department and Jackson’s attorneys have reached a settlement, pending final approval by Metro’s fiscal affairs committee, Gillespie said. Police wouldn’t release its terms.

The process of clearing Jackson’s name is under way at the district attorney’s office, Gillespie added.

Linda Krueger, executive director of Metro’s Criminalistics Bureau, said the department’s review determined the DNA sample switch happened sometime during the later stages of technical processing, either during the setup of amplification or the loading of a genetic analyzer.

“This was not a scientific error or a technical error, but a human error,” Gillespie said.

The forensic scientist who handled the case, Terry Cook, has been placed on paid administrative leave while the department conducts an internal investigation, police said. Metro hired Cook in 1983.

Police said it’s unlikely other errors occurred, but the department is evaluating 225 to 250 DNA cases handled by Cook. The cases will be reviewed and submitted for retesting if they include a person and DNA sample from evidence, Krueger said.

Click to enlarge photo

Linda Krueger, left, executive director of the Metro Police Criminalistics Bureau, speaks to Sheriff Doug Gillespie before a news conference at Metro offices July 7, 2011.

“We expect completion of reanalysis (of the cases) within two to three months,” said Assistant Sheriff Ray Flynn, who oversees the department’s criminalistics and internal affairs bureaus. “This is not quick work.”

Metro’s Criminalistics Bureau became accredited in 2003 after meeting a series of requirements and was reaccredited in 2008, Flynn said. When police confirmed the DNA mistake, department officials contacted the accreditation body, the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, to make it aware of the situation.

Attorney David Chesnoff, who is representing Jackson along with his attorney Richard Schonfeld, said Jackson has declined interview requests but is looking forward to a resolution.

“Everybody understands that the imprisonment of someone who is innocent is a terrible event, but Mr. Jackson appreciates the quick response once it was discovered,” Chesnoff said.

Police said they are reviewing their quality assurance standards in the forensic lab.

Police, however, noted that technology changes since 2001 have led to more automation and less reliance on humans when handling DNA samples.

For instance, DNA samples are placed in larger tubes with better labeling and loaded in plate formats, eliminating the need for multiple human transfers, Krueger said.

Since Metro began analyzing DNA in 1997, the department has processed about 8,900 cases, police said. About 44,000 convicted offenders’ DNA samples have been added to the national database, resulting in 1,185 “hits” — or DNA matches — since the department started using the database in 2000.

Krueger said Metro encountered another DNA mistake in 2002, but it was an administrative error converting DNA information to a report format, which did not result in a wrongful conviction.

Gillespie said the department realizes what he described as the “power we have to take away someone else’s freedom,” adding that Metro is trying to rectify the mistakes made.

“When there are (mistakes), I will be standing right here at this podium and admitting them,” he said.

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  1. Until we start putting incompetent prosecutors, police and technictions in prison for an amount of time equal to the amount of their falsely convicted citizens, we will continue to have shoddy persecution of the innocent.

  2. And people wonder why I don't want warehousing of DNA from people who merely arrested.

  3. Further proof of my theory...
    EVERYTHING BAD HERE happens because of RANK STUPIDITY & OUTRIGHT INCOMPETENCE.
    Regardless of what it is...
    If a human being has a hand it in this burg, a mess of it will be made!!!

  4. "This mistake should never have happened and is unacceptable," Sheriff Doug Gillespie said.

    Thank you, Sheriff Doug for THAT pearl of whiz-dom.

  5. I guess this blows the prosecution's air tight DNA evidence theory.

  6. "Serious lawsuit. I'd say worth 100mil. Good job metro."

    Sevehills -- except it will be the people of Clark County who pay it in the end. And don't look for any persons involved to ever be charged or successfully sued. Instead you'll more likely see the cops and DA circle the wagons.

    "And people wonder why I don't want warehousing of DNA from people who merely arrested."

    boftx -- as this and the widespread abuse of DNA evidence by the likes of Fred Zain (Google him, and he's on Wikipedia) show, prosecution has become a racket where the conviction at any cost has displaced their duty to do justice.

    Some of Jackson's best years were stolen from him by this "mistake." It's going to be interesting to see how this plays out.

    "Makes you feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game." -- Bob Dylan "Hurricane"

  7. There will be no law suit on account of it was a plea deal he never said that he didn't do it he merely pleaded that way on the thought of the DA having that piece of evidence that didn't exist.

  8. Oh, there WILL BE A LAWSUIT.

  9. smartone, I call BS to your theory.

    Casino, If they used the threat of bad evidence and coerced him to accept a plea deal..... well now.

    gmag, you are correct, very correct.

  10. What a costly mistake.

  11. I recall reading that wrongful conviction payments are usually in the $40-50,000 per year, for each year incarcerated, range. Is there a law in Nevada specifying the amount of the payment? It is becoming common around the country.

  12. This Jackson guy made an informed decision based upon the evidence against him, More so on the DNA evidence that the DA claimed to have had and pleaded guilty. Had the DA never said that they had this evidence then there still would have been a trial or yet another plea deal offer in lieu of trial. The article implies that Jackson was a innocent man wrongfully convicted. He may have committed the crime and someone wanted to guarantee a conviction and falsified the test in order to get that conviction.