You don’t have to be a scientist to ask the right questions
Two Hamline Law alumni public defenders and a Hamline Law 2L opened “Pandora’s box” at the Saint Paul Police Department crime lab this summer. Their work may have immediate repercussions for their client and broad implications for the handling of forensic evidence throughout the State of Minnesota. For defense lawyers, this story is an object lesson in asking the right questions.
Christine Funk, JD '94, is a member of the Minnesota Public Defender’s Trial Team and a DNA expert who joined Dakota County Public Defender Lauri Traub, JD '99, on a drug case involving evidence analyzed by the Saint Paul crime lab. Hamline Law 2L Peder Ell is the summer intern working with the State Trial Team, who employed his undergrad coursework in forensic science at Hamline Law to help them analyze the file.
The case is ongoing, so Traub and Funk could not address the specifics of their findings. But the Twin Cities news media has trumpeted the scope of their discovery: the Saint Paul crime lab lacks written standards, keeps sparse records, and provides little training to the laboratory technicians who perform key evidentiary analyses in drug cases.
After graduating from Hamline Law in 1994, Funk learned everything she could about DNA evidence when another Hamline Law alum and public defender Luke Stellpflug (J.D., '85) directed her to do so for a murder case they were trying in Anoka County. From there she went on to take courses, and then teach courses, about DNA evidence for defense lawyers. Funk served on panel for the National Institute of Justice, which recently produced a training manual, “DNA For The Defense Bar.”
Now a well known DNA expert, Funk taught a DNA institute in which Traub enrolled. She instructed her students to follow a two-step process when receiving DNA analysis from a crime lab: 1) request the entire file from the crime lab for review, and 2) set a meeting with the lab analyst to find out the science behind the test. Talking to the analyst provides important information about lab protocols and validation studies that may be important to the case.
Meanwhile, Traub was assigned to defend a suspect in a drug case this spring, and asked Funk to assist. Funk hadn’t worked with drug evidence, but she and Traub followed the same process she teaches for DNA evidence. They requested the whole file from the Saint Paul crime lab, and then they met with the lab analyst. The rest, as they say, is history.
Traub, whose undergraduate degree is in business administration, calls herself an “everyday public defender,” who didn’t bring a science background to the practice of law. But she did take Funk's DNA course, and she had taken a number of additional forensic courses including blood stain pattern analysis, fingerprinting, tool marks and fire arm identification.
Traub and Funk credit Hamline Law 2L Peder Ell with helping them understand the parameters of a gas chromatography important to understanding the lab file in their case. Ell received forensic science training as part of his undergraduate criminology degree at Hamline University.
Funk and Traub, with their focus on their immediate case, cannot predict the impact of their discoveries at the unaccredited Saint Paul crime lab. Public defenders, prosecutors, the Innocence Project, and state legislators are just some of the interested parties trying to sort out its implications, and what it could mean for the 18-20 other unaccredited crime labs in Minnesota.
Funk pointed out that the National Science Foundation, in a report issued in February 2009, recommended that that the operation of crime labs be separated from law enforcement. Crimefighters have too much of a stake in the outcome of tests at crime labs.
Traub said that she and Funk are poster children for the notion that you don’t have to be a scientist to ask the right questions and to dig deeper into forensic assumptions in defense of a client. Funk, Traub and Ell have set a new standard as a legal defense team. They are making their mark on the Minnesota justice system.