Off Beat

Testing, Testing, D-N-A

When last we left Steve Russett, the assistant state public defender was waiting for the Minnesota Supreme Court to decide whether a controversial DNA test should have been introduced into evidence in the trial of Tony Allen Roman Nose (See "Case Not Closed" July 3, 2002). Roman Nose was convicted in 2001 by a Washington County jury of first-degree murder in the July 2000 stabbing death of Jolene Stuedemann, and Russett was handling the appeal. His argument was that the test relied on a new "polymerase chain reaction-short tandem repeat" (PCR-STR) technology that had not been proved to be scientifically reliable. To the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which began using the test in 1999, the new technology had been a significant advancement: With evidence only a fraction of the size previously required, investigators could replicate a billion copies of the genes in question and profile the underlying DNA.

In an opinion issued last week, the Minnesota Supreme Court sided with Russett--at least in part. Because PCR-STR is new, the justices wrote, the Washington County court should have held a hearing to determine whether it had been generally accepted by the scientific community.

As a result, the justices have ordered that the lower court hold that hearing within the next three months and report the findings to the supreme court. Depending on the lower court's review, the supreme court may then revisit the question of the DNA test's acceptability as evidence. (According to Russett, if the lower court judge rules in Roman Nose's favor, his conviction would be overturned and a new trial begun; if not, the supreme court may still examine the DNA test and reach its own decision.)

"It's good news in the sense that it demonstrates that the court is taking this issue very seriously," Russett says. "It's not simply going to accept the state's bald assertion that this is good science."

The wait on a final decision will go on awhile longer. And even if the supreme court were to rule that the DNA evidence should not be used at trial, that wouldn't necessarily mean that all of the some 1,500 cases that have relied on the new test would be overturned--that would happen only on a case-by-case basis.

"The supreme court recognizes the importance of this issue and the impact it's going to have, not just on this case, but on all pending decisions," Russett continues. "The court is proceeding cautiously and prudently, I think. Let's get all the information and then make a decision." --By Leyla Kokmen