Everyone believed the case of Lukis Anderson, a homeless alcoholic living in California, was open and shut.  His DNA was found at the 2012 murder scene of a Silicon Valley millionaire.

Things were not what they seemed…

Paramedics that treated the murder victim had treated Anderson earlier that day on the streets of San Jose.  When they responded to the murder scene, they carried his DNA with them.  This case is the first case in California and perhaps the U.S. in which DNA evidence was proven to have falsely placed an innocent person at the scene of a crime.  This new discovery prompts the question:  how many times does this happen?

Defense attorneys would like jurors to view DNA evidence more skeptically.

“Before, we just had hypotheticals, stuff that DAs would say was smoke and mirrors,” said Deputy Public Defender Kelley Kulick, who handled the groundbreaking case, “Now, there is a case to support it.”

Former Santa Clara County Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr. hopes that the Anderson case can help prove that he too is innocent despite DNA evidence.  Shirakawa’s lawyers are challenging his felony charges that say he was behind a fraudulent campaign mailer.  On that mailer, his DNA was allegedly found on the stamp.  In Shirakawa’s case, his defense attorney Jay Rorty has asked a judge for Anderson’s medical records and he’s consulted with Bicka Barlow, a San Francisco lawyer who specializes in DNA.  Exactly how the transference may have occurred is unclear, but there are several theories.  His lawyers are not commenting and no official motions have been filed yet explaining their argument.  One possibility is if Shirakawa shook hands with the person who actually sent the mailer.

“You could very innocently come in contact with an object, and days or months later, your DNA shows up at a crime scene you had nothing to do with,” said Barlow, speaking in general.

Prosecutors in Shirakawa’s case are against giving Shirakawa’s lawyers Anderson’s records.  They argue that Anderson’s records are confidential (medical records), irrelevant, and not exculpatory.  Prosecutor John Chase says that he is confident that the prosecution will prevail.  Even if defense attorneys cannot get the documents, an expert witness can make an indirect reference during testimony to the Anderson case.  Chase did concede that the Anderson case has forced prosecutors in cases that rest heavily on DNA to make sure that there is supporting evidence,

“It’s an absolute now.  You can’t make a case solely on contact DNA.”

Very few defendants have been able to use what is called the transference defense successfully despite solid proof that it does occur.  DNA evidence is looked at as an almost perfect forensic science.  Even if a defendant successfully shows transference, they cannot always completely prove innocence.  Amanda Knox, for example, has had some success in certain Italy courtrooms showing that DNA was transferred by police, but has had trouble showing that she is innocent due to other disputed facts.

Anderson’s lawyers were able to support the DNA transference with an alibi.

Anderson was arrested on murder charges after his DNA was found under the fingernail of Silicon Valley millionaire Ravi Kumra.  Kumra died due to suffocation after robbers bound him during a home-invasion at his gated estate.  The prosecution saw connections that supported the DNA link:  Anderson had a previous burglary conviction and he spent time in the same jail as a member of one of the gangs tied to Kumra’s death.  That gang member was never implicated in the robbery or death.  While others were accused in the death of Kumra and they belonged to some of Oakland’s most violent home-invasion gangs, Anderson was not mentally capable of organized crime.  He had suffered brain damage after being hit by a truck and had such severe memory problems he couldn’t even recall his whereabouts yesterday if you asked him today.

Anderson’s lawyers had nagging doubts about the case.  They decided to look beyond the DNA evidence.  Kulick pursued every avenue to prove that Anderson was an innocent man.  Kulick eventually discovered medical records that showed on the night Kumra was killed during a home-invasion, Anderson was at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.  He had passed out drunk in San Jose and was taken there by an ambulance.  Those same paramedics responded to the Kumra murder scene.  Anderson’s DNA was transferred when paramedics clipped an oxygen-monitor probe to Anderson’s finger on the way to the hospital.  Then, turned around and clipped the same oxygen-monitor probe to the murder victim’s finger.

Prosecutors dropped the charges after examining what Kulick discovered and reviewing other evidence to determine whether the paramedics were really the same in both cases.

Anderson spent 5 months in jail awaiting trial. Kulick plans to ask a judge to wipe the Kumra murder arrest off Anderson’s record (dropped charges still remain on a person’s record, as do acquittals and dismissals, which sadly have been shown to negatively affect people’s lives) and declare him factually innocent of the charges.

At a time when DNA is playing an ever increasing role both in convicting and exonerating people and not just in rape and murder cases, the new developments in the Anderson case could be shocking and could cause pause.  As it should.  The Anderson case by itself isn’t a death blow to the science of DNA and probably won’t help others with the same issue, if prosecutors can successfully argue that it is a rare occurrence or if there is other evidence that may sway a jury to convict.

In a Sacramento baby murder case in March, Ruth Edelstein, who represented the defendant, tried to sway a jury by telling them that transference does happen and recounting the Anderson case.  The jury convicted anyway based in part on an alleged confession to an acquaintance.

“Because of CSI and a lot of other misinformation, there’s a belief that if someone’s DNA is there, the person [did it],” Edelstein said, referring to the popular TV crime drama franchise, “But the presence of DNA doesn’t tell you anything about how it got there.”

Before the Anderson case, there were at least 2 high-profile transference cases.

American exchange student Amanda Knox was acquitted by an Italian appellate court after her attorneys successfully argued that trace amounts of DNA had been transferred.  Knox lived in the home, with others, where British exchange student Meredith Kercher was murdered.  Another Italian court reversed that acquittal, ordered a new trial, and then Knox and her boyfriend at the time, an Italian, were convicted.  The lengthy contentious case is currently under appeal.

In 2012, a British cabdriver was charged with the murder of a prostitute based upon his DNA under her fingernails.  He was cleared after his defense attorneys successfully showed that he had a dry skin condition, which made transference even easier then a normal person.  The defense contended that his DNA was transferred to a customer and that unknown customer was the killer.

Officials around the world have long recognized the risk of contamination and transference of DNA.  Many studies have been done on the issue.  One study demonstrated that it only takes 30 seconds to transfer DNA when handling something.  Another study found that biological fluids, including semen, on one garment can transfer to another if washed together.

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