Weighing the Evidence
05/15/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
For the past few weeks, the defense at the O.J. Simpson trial has been hammering mercilessly at the prosecution's forensic evidence. Defense attorney Barry Scheck, for example, ferociously attacked the testimony—and credibility—of Dennis Fung and Andrea Mazzola, the two LAPD criminalists assigned to the murder scene. At one point, Scheck held aloft what he called a "fundamental textbook " used by the LAPD—Criminalistics: An Introduction to Forensic Science—and claimed that Fung had improperly collected and packaged bloodstain evidence.
To find out if the LAPD did in fact follow standard investigation procedures, staff writer David Ellis talked to the author of Criminalistics, Dr. Richard Saferstein, 53, a forensic science consultant who has studied hundreds of police investigations. Saferstein, who earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at the City University of New York, headed the New Jersey State Police Crime Laboratory from 1970 to 1991, training police officers in evidence collection. He lives in a Philadelphia suburb with his wife, Gail, and their daughter Sharon, 17.
What kind of reputation does the LAPD have in the collection of forensic evidence?
A fairly good one. Both Fung and his assistant Andrea Mazzola are criminalists—people who have scientific training for their job. The very fact that the department brings qualified criminalists to a crime scene is a rarity in law enforcement. In 90 percent of all cases, police officers gather evidence, and they often do not have proper training.
What mistakes are usually made at crime scenes?
Sometimes police simply overlook evidence. Sometimes they don't properly document what they collect and don't use appropriate technologies, such as ultraviolet lights, to search the crime scene for fibers and stains. The major problem is in making sure there are properly trained officers at the scene—there's a lot of turnover of experienced police officers following promotions and retirements.
Was it a good strategy to put the Simpson investigators on trial?
The defense will not be able to deny the existence of DNA evidence at the crime scene, so they are raising questions about police credibility. The lawyers obviously sized up Fung as a pussycat and brutalized him. But no expert witness should be treated with such disrespect. That was overkill and might prompt jurors to conclude that the guy can't be as inept as he has been portrayed. But the tough line of questioning may have another purpose: to psych future prosecution witnesses into droning on in detail during testimony. If they do that, the jurors could go to sleep before they get into the crucial DNA presentation.
Did the defense play fair by using your book to attack Fung?
Although Scheck did a masterful job of instilling doubt about the LAPD's methods, he quoted the book out of context. I intended to make the point that plastic should not be the final resting place for bloodstained articles because accumulated moisture can lead to the growth of blood-destroying bacteria and fungi. But Fung brought the plastic envelope back to the lab fairly quickly, unpacked the contents, dried the sample and put it in a paper envelope. It was a completely proper procedure.
Did the LAPD make any serious blunders in handling the physical specimens?
The only obvious mistake was taking the blanket from Nicole Simpson's apartment and placing it on her body because it can now be argued that whatever physical evidence such as hairs and fibers can be found on the surface of the body came from the blanket.
Did the mistakes made by the LAPD destroy or contaminate the evidence?
Scheck has said the delays and missteps in blood collection are similar to letting milk go sour. I can assure you that analogy is wrong. None of the so-called mistakes the defense has emphasized would significantly damage the integrity of the forensic evidence. What's more, if genetic blood factors are destroyed, it hurts the prosecution and helps the defense.
How important is the trail of blood—from Nicole Simpson's condo on Bundy to the stains found on O.J. Simpson's estate?
Very important. It is extraordinary to have a case with so many pieces of physical evidence. Usually the police are lucky to recover just one or two meaningful items. In this case there are scores. The cumulative impact will be overwhelming in terms of linking O.J. Simpson to the crime scene.
How can the prosecution make DNA evidence understandable to lay jurors?
You can convey the basics to the jury very easily—that DNA is a genetic profile found in blood and other bodily fluids. If the scientific presentation goes on for more than three days, the consequences will be disastrous. Jurors do not need or want a textbook course on DNA.
What do you think will be the trial's outcome?
It will be difficult for the state to get a unanimous verdict of guilt given the enormous complexity of technical issues confronting the jurors and the proficiency of the defense team in planting seeds of doubt. I expect a hung jury.