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EDITORIAL: Justice in jeopardy

A microscopic image of DNA. — file photo
A microscopic image of DNA. — Stock photo

It’s the Holy Grail of crime shows on television.

A hush falls over the crime scene, as an investigator points a swab at the sky and intones quietly, “We’ve got DNA.”

It carries similar weight in courts in real life. When a scientist tells a jury there’s a one-in-14-million chance that a DNA sample found at a crime scene came from the accused, it’s hard to even fathom the circumstances that would be involved in having that infinitesimally slim chance come to pass.

If it’s the accused’s DNA, right there at the crime scene, or maybe even on a murder victim’s body — what possible choice is there but a guilty verdict?

Well, there’s always the unsettling question that has arisen in this province’s court system, one that has staggering implications.

What if the samples got mixed up at the very beginning?

Right now, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is being investigated after it appears that’s exactly what may have happened.

The St. John’s murder trial of Steve Bragg, accused of killing Veronica Head, was delayed last Monday after both the prosecution and defence received the results of an RNC investigation that indicated it had found an issue with cross-contamination of DNA samples collected in other cases at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

DNA was sent to the RCMP lab in Ottawa in two different cases of men who died by homicide in this province six months apart. One of the men’s sample apparently came back as matching that of the other man. The two cases were unrelated.

The cross-contamination issue doesn’t directly affect the Bragg case, but the RNC has now launched an investigation that plans to look at cases running back for the last three years.

The St. John’s murder trial of Steve Bragg, accused of killing Veronica Head, was delayed last Monday after both the prosecution and defence received the results of an RNC investigation that indicated it had found an issue with cross-contamination of DNA samples collected in other cases at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

It’s not the first time the medical examiner’s office has been in the news. Problems at the office have already meant charges were dropped in the case of an infant’s death in Labrador, after the office lost or accidently destroyed brain tissue evidence in the case. A subsequent review found the medical examiner’s office to be overworked, understaffed and without proper facilities.

Since then, a new chief medical officer has been put in place and the provincial government has budgeted an increase of more than half a million dollars for the office.

The problem, of course, is obvious: what if you were convicted based on iron-clad evidence that was flawed from the beginning? How on Earth could you either get a fair trial or ever not be seen as a criminal?

On the face of it, the error sounds like the sort of mix-up that could happen anywhere where there are humans doing jobs.

But the implications for the administration of justice are downright staggering.

Let’s hope the investigation is thorough, complete and is finished as quickly as possible.

Because a one-in-14-million chance might be nowhere near the slam-dunk it seemed.

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