DNA expert testifies evidence witheld in lacrosse case
BY JOHN STEVENSON : The Herald-Sun
Dec 16, 2006 : 12:10 am ET
The director of a private DNA laboratory testified Friday that he violated his own policies by agreeing with Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong to initially withhold information favorable to three Duke lacrosse players charged with raping an exotic dancer.
But Brian Meehan, director of DNA Security in Burlington, said the information was withheld to protect the privacy of more than 40 other lacrosse players who gave bodily samples for scientific testing.
He denied a deliberate cover-up was involved.
"We were concerned about a report that could become explosive if it had all those [DNA] profiles of all those players in it," Meehan testified, adding he didn't want to "drag anybody else through the mud."
"I don't have another explanation for it," he said. "I don't have a legal excuse or reason. ... It was just the simple me, trying to do the right thing and not put that information out there for the public. It was a failed attempt to provide a minimal amount of information."
Also during a Friday court hearing, Judge Osmond Smith ordered paternity tests to determine if any of the rape suspects was responsible for the accuser's newly disclosed pregnancy.
Nifong said the woman is expected to give birth in early February. He conceded the rape defendants almost certainly did not impregnate her, but he concurred with defense attorneys that paternity tests should be done anyway.
In addition, defense lawyers requested Friday that the rape case be tried in another county, saying the alleged March incident had so polarized Durham that an impartial jury could not be found here.
"What the defendants seek, and what they are entitled to under the Constitution, is a trial in a community which has not been polarized by pretrial publicity or torn apart by the circumstances of these cases," Friday's written motion said. "Regrettably, Durham is not that community."
Defense lawyers said The Herald-Sun was partially responsible.
"In its editorial positions, The Herald-Sun has relentlessly condemned the Duke lacrosse team and encouraged a prosecution of the defendants in these cases," attorneys wrote. "In its first significant editorial on these cases, The Herald-Sun stated that not only had a crime occurred, but that those present during the crime were guilty of an additional 'outrage' by not confessing to the crime."
A judge will rule later -- probably in February -- on the change-of-venue request.
Those were the key developments in a preliminary hearing that brought all three suspects together in a Durham courtroom for the first time since they were accused of raping the dancer during an off-campus lacrosse party at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. on the night of March 13-14.
The three -- Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann and David Evans -- listened to the proceedings attentively and occasionally whispered to their attorneys. They had no comment afterward.
A handful of university students, one wearing a Duke lacrosse shirt, sat near them in support.
Most of Friday's all-morning hearing was taken up with Meehan's testimony.
His Burlington lab analyzed evidence from the rape case during the spring, as did the State Bureau of Investigation in Raleigh.
Neither laboratory found DNA from the rape suspects -- or from any other Duke lacrosse player -- in the accuser's body or on her clothing.
Lawyer Brad Bannon, representing Evans along with attorney Joe Cheshire, hammered Meehan for more than an hour about why his initial report lacked information favorable to the rape suspects.
Citing a Burlington test report that came later, Bannon noted that DNA from other men -- but not from the defendants -- was found in the alleged rape victim's body and underwear, as well as on a pubic hair retrieved from her person.
So why wasn't that information included in Meehan's initial report, Bannon demanded.
"I don't think [Nifong] told me to write the report that way," said Meehan. "But I think we were in agreement that the alternative would have been to provide profiles of everybody involved in the case. He [Nifong] didn't ask me specifically to exclude this. Mr. Nifong did not request that I exclude data."
But neither did Nifong ask for a complete report, Meehan added.
"We would be glad to provide a more thorough report upon the request of our client," he testified. "Mr. Nifong is our client. If he had said, 'We want a report on everything,' that's what we would produce."
Didn't information withheld from the initial DNA report "tend to negate the guilt" of the rape suspects, Bannon wanted to know.
"No," said Meehan. "It is possible for a person to be raped and no semen is left there. If the DNA is not there, it doesn't mean they [the suspects] were not there. A person can rob a bank and never leave a fingerprint. It doesn't mean they didn't rob the bank."
Then it was Nifong's turn.
"Did you intend to put in less than the full truth?" Nifong asked Meehan about his initial report.
Nifong: "Did anyone ever tell you to conceal or hide any of your results?"
Nifong noted that he eventually surrendered 1,822 pages of testing information to defense attorneys, accounting for the entire case file maintained by DNA Security.
But Cheshire said after Friday's hearing that he and other defense attorneys "had to fight" for the additional information.
"Even after we sought it, it was not told to us what it meant," he said. "We had to discover what it meant."
Cheshire also said the latest information further damaged the alleged rape victim's credibility, which already was under heavy attack, because it showed she was "loaded with the DNA of other males even though she said she had sex with only one other person. We are extremely troubled by that."