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State DNA test kit on trial
At least 50 convictions for crimes such rape and murder are on hold pending a Minnesota Supreme Court decision expected in the next few months. The state's high court must rule whether a new DNA test kit used by Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is reliable. The issue stems from the case of a Minneapolis man who appealed his conviction of stabbing his girlfriend three years ago.

St. Paul, Minn. — Debra Clemons called Minneapolis police in November 1999 claiming a man sleeping in her home had stabbed her. Police recovered a bloody knife and arrested Raymond Traylor on second-degree attempted murder and assault charges. Traylor denied stabbing Clemons and even possessing the knife used in the attack. But a newer DNA kit used by the state showed Clemons' blood on the knife and on Traylor's pants.

Traylor's attorney Joe Margulies questions whether the state's kits manufactured by PerkinElmer are accurate because the company won't explain how the kits work.

"You cannot hide behind a trade secret and say, 'trust us; although we have a commercial interest in the outcome, we're not going to tell you how this kit works because to do so is inconsistent with our commercial interests,'" Margulies says.

While a jury acquitted Traylor on attempted murder charges, it convicted him on the assault count and a Hennepin County judge sentenced him to 8 1/2 years in prison.

Margulies says knowing how PerkinElmer DNA kits reach conclusions on DNA evidence is important because he says DNA testing is different from other kinds of criminal evidence, such as hair or tire tracks.

"DNA testing, because you can't look at it requires that you break down and reassemble at a microscopic level the samples. And that breakdown, is what potentially changes and what makes the analysis different than just gross physical examination of a known and unknown sample," Margulies said.

A PerkinElmer spokesman declined to comment because the ruling is pending.

The state prefers using the newer kits because they don't require as large a sample and they produce results faster than the older kits. Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar disputes the premise that the results from the newer tests are questionable.

"I believe that what they're trying to do here is to hold up these cases, hold up our ability to prosecute these cases when in fact the standard is very clear: Is it accurate? Is it reliable? And we believe as district courts have found in Minnesota and across the country, the answer to those questions is yes," Klobuchar says.

A lower court, a panel of the state Court of Appeals, ruled Minnesota could not use the newer DNA kits because the standards weren't developed by an FBI-organized consortium of prominent DNA scientists from the U.S. and Canada as the older test had been.

David Kaye is a law professor at Arizona State University and has served on committees of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. Kaye says the older standards are generally accepted by scientists.

"But there's no particular fundamental reason that it's the only requirement or the decisive requirement. And especially when a successor committee is used by the FBI that modifies things as time goes on," Kaye says.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed with Traylor on the use of the new DNA kits but upheld his conviction anyway. The court said other evidence in the case supported his guilty verdict.

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