Schenectady County

Admissibility of DNA at issue in murder trial

Prosecutors could find out soon whether they will be able to use a new type of DNA analysis in an up

Prosecutors could find out soon whether they will be able to use a new type of DNA analysis in an upcoming murder trial.

Arguments are being offered this week by attorneys in the murder case against John Wakefield to determine if a full hearing on the new technology is needed.

Prosecutor Peter Willis is arguing the technology is already proven and accepted, and therefore no hearing is needed. Defense attorney Frederick Rench is arguing the technology remains in the developmental stage and hasn’t been proved and a hearing should be held on its admissibility.

Wakefield is accused of killing 41-year-old Brett Wentworth in April 2010 during a four-day drug binge, during which he stole to get his next high.

Wakefield was indicted in November 2012 on first-degree murder and other charges. If convicted, he faces up to life in prison without parole.

Trial in the case has been delayed several times, partly on the issue of the new DNA technology. It was initially set for trial in April 2013, but was put off because the DNA issue needed to be sorted out. There is currently no trial date set.

For much of that delay, Wakefield was serving an unrelated prison sentence. He completed that sentence in March and now is being held in the Schenectady County jail in the murder case.

The new DNA analysis was developed by Dr. Mark Perlin of Pittsburgh. It allows for analysis of small samples or mixtures of DNA from more than one person, according to published accounts.

Willis said the prosecution’s case will include DNA evidence based on long-standing methods and said prosecutors secured the indictment without the use of the new method. The new method would provide additional evidence in the case, he said.

Courts in three other states have allowed its use in proceedings, but it has yet to be approved for use in New York state.

Attorneys made arguments Monday on whether the system requires a special hearing focused on new technology. Those arguments are to continue today. Judge Michael V. Coccoma indicated he would have a decision within two weeks.

In Monday’s session, the judge asked Rench whether he should take judicial notice of the other states. Rench said he should be aware of them but should also be aware that the standards in those states may be different.

“We know what the standards are in this state, and the standard is it must be generally accepted in the scientific community,” Rench said. “There’s no competent evidence in the people’s papers to suggest that it’s been generally accepted in the scientific community.”

He also noted this involves a murder prosecution and Coccoma’s decision could impact future cases.

Willis responded there have been multiple peer-reviewed papers on the subject that a defense expert hasn’t challenged. He also argued the method is demonstrable, not experimental. He couldn’t imagine what else proponents of the method could do, other than perform additional validation studies.

“One contrary viewpoint does not a controversy make,” Willis said.

Coccoma concluded Monday’s session by noting he has yet to make a decision and that both sides have made compelling arguments. Those arguments are to continue today.

Wakefield and Wentworth knew each other, prosecutors have said, and Wentworth apparently let Wakefield into the apartment at 1019 Wendell Ave.

Wentworth, described as a “gentile soul” by family, was found dead April 12, 2010. He is believed to have been killed the day before.

Prosecutors have credited “dogged police work” in bringing the case to an indictment in November. They have also credited the state police Major Crimes Unit and “extensive forensic analysis” by the state police laboratory.

Categories: -News-, Schenectady County

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