On most days, district attorneys worry about things like search warrants, jury instructions and cross-examinations. But on Friday, the biggest concern for a group of ten Oklahoma prosecutors was the contents of a tiny test tube.
The district attorneys came from Claremore, Bartlesville, Pawhuska, Sapulpa and across the state to attend a workshop in forensics genetics at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City. The class, co-sponsored by OMRF and the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council, provided the prosecutors with a hands-on opportunity to learn about deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the genetic material that has transformed the criminal justice system.
With OMRF scientist Linda Thompson, Ph.D., as their guide, the prosecutors spent the day in the laboratory, where they isolated, processed and analyzed their own DNA. Along the way, they learned what cells look like under a microscope, how to use a pipette and that saline solution leaves a pretty bad aftertaste.
“Yuck,” said Washington County District Attorney Rick Esser after he rinsed his mouth with a solution of salty water. “Now I’m ready for a margarita.”
But forensics, not cocktails, were the order of the day. The saline rinse was a painless way to obtain DNA samples from the prosecutors, who then learned firsthand how crime labs transform minute samples of spit, blood and hair into virtually irrefutable proof of innocence or guilt.
“There’s a great value to doing it yourself, as opposed to just hearing how it’s done,” said Rogers County District Attorney Gene Haynes as he prepared to examine his DNA sample under an ultraviolet light. “It helps take some of the mystery out of the process.”
In recent years, DNA evidence has exonerated scores of wrongly convicted individuals and sent many guilty ones to prison. It has become an increasingly common tool in the courtroom, particularly in murder, rape and paternity cases.
“We think it’s important that the people who might be called upon to evaluate DNA evidence understand what the procedures are all about,” said Thompson, an immunobiology and cancer researcher at OMRF.
For some prosecutors, the day in OMRF’s labs will pay immediate dividends. “I have two murder cases pending that are both totally dependent on DNA samples,” said Esser. “With what I’ve learned, I’ll be in a better position to explain those cases to juries.”
For others, like Osage County District Attorney Larry Stuart, the workshop served as a valuable refresher. “The technology has changed so much since I last tried a DNA case,” Stuart said. “It’s important for me to keep up with the science.”
Creek County District Attorney Max Cook found the day to be a pleasant change from his usual routine. “It was refreshing to look at a cell that didn’t have any inmates in it,” he said, smiling.
At the end of the day, Thompson praised her pupils. “I’m really proud of you guys,” she told the would-be scientists. “Some day, you should come back for a graduate course.”