Off Beat



Never mind that we don't know how the state's new DNA test works, exactly. We know it works, and that's enough.

That was the gist of the Minnesota Supreme Court's much-anticipated ruling on the admissibility of the controversial procedure to identify DNA matches from crime-scene evidence--frequently used in rape and murder cases. You see, the company that created the DNA test has refused to publicly divulge the underlying chemistry that makes it work, citing trade secrets. Defense attorneys argued that without those formulas it was impossible to independently validate the test and prove its accuracy. Last March the Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed, throwing the past and future viability of the test into question.

But in an opinion issued on February 24, the state's highest court ruled that the test is generally accepted by the scientific community, and that it isn't necessary to know the proprietary chemistry to validate the results. You could almost hear prosecutors across the state breathe a collective sigh of relief. After all, the dispute had cost scads of time and money--and had the unpleasant side effect of putting numerous high-profile criminal cases on hold until the issue was settled. Hennepin County alone had a backlog of more than 50 cases, mostly rapes and murders, in which DNA evidence was to be introduced. (See the "The DNA Follies," February 19.) In a separate opinion concerning eight Hennepin County prosecutions where the DNA evidence had been excluded, the supreme court sent those cases back to the county to proceed.

But there is still at least one loose end.

The recent opinions cover only two of the three appeals that took issue with the DNA test. The third, an appeal of the June 2001 first-degree murder conviction of Tony Allen Roman Nose, is still pending after being sent back to a lower court for further clarification. Assistant state public defender Steve Russett, who is handling the Roman Nose appeal, says he hopes the supreme court will address some ongoing concerns about the state's DNA test--specifically how the DNA evidence is presented to jurors. "They've pretty much resolved the issue of whether DNA evidence is or is not admissible at trial," he admits. "Where the battle will be now is how the evidence is presented to the jury, and how the prosecutor uses the evidence. The battle's not done." --By Leyla Kokmen


No Bargain

Five negotiating sessions between the Uptown Borders bookstore and United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 789, have produced more acrimony than progress since store employees voted 15-6 to join the union last October.

Union supporters opened negotiations with a 16-page contract proposal that included starting wages of $9.33 an hour (the rate determined by Hennepin County to constitute a living wage) and employer-paid health insurance. The proposed contract would also mandate that full-time workers be guaranteed a 40-hour work week, while part-time employees could count on working at least 15 hours weekly. In addition, workers would receive 30 days' notice before any layoffs. All of these ideas were rejected by the Borders negotiating team, headed by an attorney from the union-busting law firm of Jackson Lewis. (One of the areas of specialty listed on the firm's website is "union avoidance") "We created a document that was user-friendly, very simple, nothing to sit and pick fly shit over, and they did anyway," says Bill Pearson, president of Local 789.

Borders' refusal to make contract concessions is consistent with its past hard-line position toward unions. At each of the four stores that have voted for collective bargaining in the past, the company's intransigence has outlasted the presence of the union, which has never been retained beyond the terms of the initial contract. The Uptown Borders is not the only outlet in the midst of contract talks. The company's flagship store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, voted to unionize in December by a 51-4 vote. Other unionizing efforts are also in process.

Local 789 has also initiated a public relations campaign to draw attention to Borders' anti-union position. Last month union supporters passed out 2,500 bookmarks emblazoned with the slogan "Being a bookseller doesn't mean you should live in poverty!" in area bookstores. Pearson is also planning to put together a book about retail workers, and he hopes to get blurbs from lefty luminaries such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Studs Terkel. He envisions holding signing parties for the book in front of Borders stores. "You can't beat these guys if you don't get inside their heads," he says. "The only way we'll ever move them is to hammer them. The [bargaining] table means nothing."

Union supporters are also attempting to use the Internet to spread the union drive. The transcript of every negotiating session has been posted online (, as have videos, created by Borders employees, that deal with workplace issues. "It really isn't about the 20 people at Borders," Pearson says. "It's about what every retail worker is worth in this city, this state, this country."

Negotiations are slated to resume March 11. --By Paul Demko

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