by Bonnie Butcher

What can DNA evidence in the courtroom tell us? Claudia Saari, the circuit public defender for DeKalb County and Tom Charron, Cobb County court administrator, recently came to the University of West Georgia to share their experiences with forensic science and the criminal justice system.

Claudia Saari
Claudia Saari

The modern trial has been revolutionized by the application of this advancement in genetic techniques. As far as submitted evidence, DNA is commonly front and center. It has played significant roles in some of the nation’s most infamous cases, including the famed O.J. Simpson trial.

It has the ability to resurrect cold-cases, free the wrongly accused and prosecute the most provocative offenders. The power of DNA is unlike any forensic evidence the criminal justice system has seen before, because it is unique to every individual unless one is an identical twin. However, it has entered the courtroom only within the last few decades.

“In the 1970s there wasn’t a lot of forensic science available and used in court,” Charron explained. “We did blood typing, but that really only got us down to around 40 percent of the population. That did not mean a lot when it came to presenting that case, particularly as a prosecuting attorney.

“At the time I became involved with DNA, I had a particularly heinous crime that I was prosecuting in 1988,” said Charron, who was elected district attorney for the Cobb judicial circuit in 1976 and re-elected for six terms until March of 1998.

The case involved a young girl and her brother who were brutally beaten, and the girl was murdered in their home. A colleague came to Charron suggesting the use of DNA evidence.

“We had never had a DNA case that was ever used as evidence in Georgia before,” Charron said. “We first had to convince the court that this was not voodoo and it actually was an acceptable science and should be admitted in evidence.”

The prosecution brought the evidence to the Supreme Court in Georgia and had to argue its case. The judge made the decision to admit the evidence.

“Low and behold, the Georgia Supreme Court accepted it and DNA evidence was born in Georgia,” he said.

Tom Charron
Tom Charron

The evolution of forensic evidence has opened countless doors and provided opportunities for fairer trials, and the field is still evolving. One area of forensic science currently growing rapidly is computer forensics. This played a significant role in the case of the well-known “hot car death.”

“In the case of the hot car death, we were able to get viable evidence from the defendant’s computers and PDAs,” said Charron, who was involved with the nationally known case.

The information retrieved from Ross Harris’ technology played a vital role for the prosecution in this case.

Though forensic evidence has tremendous power and influence, it can also be a double-edged sword. It has the ability to create serious ethical dilemmas for both the criminal justice system and the crime labs involved.

“We have to be careful to follow standards and protocols,” said Saari. “We have to maintain the highest standards of science when we introduce DNA into the courtroom because many peoples lives, victims and the accused, are going to be impacted by what happens.

“When I mentioned the other state crime labs that have been shut down or there were abuses there, it really did not impact us because Georgia has a great crime lab. I’ve never had any kind of challenge or problem with that,” said Saari, who is faculty member for the public defender training program in Georgia.

As far as the use of DNA evidence in the criminal justice system, Charron said, “The sky is the limit.”

This event was organized by the Biological and Forensic Anthropology Lab (BAFAL) and sponsored by the College of Social Sciences and the Department of Anthropology in an effort to connect campus interests to the wider community.

"We had many students working their way through our undergraduate certificate in forensic science gratefully attend the question and answer session and the evening lectures provided by our esteemed guests,” said Dr. Corey Maggiano, anthropology assistant professor and director of BAFAL. “This event made clear the importance of scientific evidence and understanding in general, and offered important inside perspectives on not just the inception and acceptance of DNA evidence, but also the broader process of introducing and interpreting new science in the courtroom.”

Posted on March 3, 2017