At least two state police forensic analysts are suspected of improperly sharing answers on tests to show their competency in a new technique to analyze DNA in criminal cases, according to hearing testimony and court filings related to a Schenectady murder case.
The allegations against the two analysts touched off an internal state police investigation to determine if any of the other state police DNA analysts were involved in improperly sharing answers.
The allegations have delayed an important ruling in the Schenectady murder case as attorneys sought to see if others were implicated and if they had any role in a study on the new DNA technique.
The allegations came to light this week in Schenectady County Court in the continuation of a hearing in the murder case against John Wakefield.
Wakefield is accused of killing 41-year-old Brett Wentworth in April 2010 during a four-day drug binge. Wakefield was indicted in November 2012 on first-degree murder and other charges.
Trial in the case has been delayed several times, partly on the issue of the new DNA technology.
The conclusion of the hearing was delayed as the state police complete their internal investigation into the allegations of answer-sharing on the competency exams. Trial is now set for early 2015. It’s unclear if that date could be affected.
A central issue of a hearing this past week was whether any implicated analysts worked on studies to validate the new technology. The two individuals who were directly implicated did not work on the studies, according to testimony.
Also, prosecutor Peter Willis said Friday he received word from the state police that none of the analysts being questioned as part of the overall answer-sharing investigation worked on the studies either.
Those validation studies are important because prosecutors are using them to bolster their argument that the technology is generally accepted in the scientific community so they can use it in court.
If the technology is not allowed in the Wakefield case, prosecutor Peter Willis has said the murder case against Wakefield would continue. Prosecutors got the indictment without using the new technique. The new method, though, would provide additional evidence.
A state police spokeswoman confirmed this week that an investigation into possible improper information sharing is ongoing, but she declined to comment further.
The internal investigation is expected to be concluded by the end of this month, state police Maj. Timothy Munro testified this week. He said a large number of the staff had been interviewed, but conclusions as to whether particular individuals committed wrongdoing have not been made.
He said the goal is to interview nearly all of the analysists at the state police forensic investigation center, a number he placed at about 30.
Wakefield’s defense attorney Frederick Rench had asked that the hearing be kept open until the investigation concludes so that it could be determined whether any of the analysts being questioned were involved in the underlying study of the new DNA technology called TrueAllele.
Willis confirmed Friday that state police determined none were involved in the studies. He said he was writing a letter to the court to inform them of that.
Judge Michael Coccoma agreed with Rench. The judge noted that Wakefield is charged with very serious crimes and the judge saw no harm in waiting.
“He’s entitled to know if either of these validation studies in any way are impaired as the result of the subjects of the internal investigation,” Coccoma said.
The seriousness of the sharing was one note of contention in the hearing. Now-retired director of biological sciences for the state police Barry Duceman said the allegations surfaced in late September when the answers of two analysts were seen as similar.
The answers were given on competency tests given as the analysts were learning the TrueAllele Casework system, the new type of DNA analysis that is supposed to better look at DNA samples that include DNA from multiple people.
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.
The method has been used in some other states, but it has never been used in a New York state courtroom. Because of that, a hearing had to be held to determine if the method is generally accepted and fit for use in court here.
Duceman described one of the analysts suspected of wrongdoing as coming to him distraught and saying how she had thrown up in her office as a result of learning of the inquiry.
No new court date has been set, but the case is expected back in court in January.
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