20 July 2014

Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 3

by Leigh Lundin

Okay, you get drunk. It happens. So drunk, you pass out. That can happen, too. When you wake up, you have no memory of the previous night, not even of a rough crowd and prostitutes… That might happen too. And you’re charged with homicide.

Wh-h-at?

Yup, murder of a wealthy and important man, killed during a home invasion and robbery. It can happen, especially in 1930s and 40s detective noir novels, but not so much these days, right?

Recap

In our first installment, the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass claims, “Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” We described a seemingly impossible case where a supposed murderess was killed weeks before she was believed to have killed another woman.

In our second article, we visited the case of a female serial killer who appeared to outwit police. She wasn’t what she seemed.

Today, again thanks to a reader, we look at a current case, that of a drunk who passed out only to awake to accusations he’d murdered a man.

The Scene

15km south of San Jose in the heart of Silicon Valley and adjacent to Los Gatos, California, lies the wealthy bedroom community of Monte Sereno. There Raveesh ‘Ravi’ Kumra, entrepreneur and one-time-winery owner lived and died.

Police arrested a number of suspects including a couple of prostitutes and a businessman named Lukis Anderson. Mr. Anderson had no memory of murdering anyone, let alone a man he didn’t know in Monte Sereno. That was unsurprising: Anderson’s blood alcohol exceeded five times the legal limit. But he had a good alibi: At the estimated time of the murder, Anderson was comatose, insensibly blacked out in a hospital.

DNA
State of the State

But criminalist Tahnee Mehmet Nelson felt certain Anderson had committed the murder and she found DNA on the victim's body to prove it. And prosecutor Kevin Smith believed her.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Nelson has baggage of her own– she’d been at the center of bungled DNA testing and a subsequent cover-up. And Santa Clara County also bears a tarnished reputation that resulted in an earlier wrongful prosecution. Far from being an independent department, the crime lab is run by and beholden to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office.

The Unsinkable Molly O'Neal


But Public Defender Molly O'Neal dug into the case and proved to her own satisfaction that Anderson couldn’t have been in two places at once– unconscious in a hospital and miles away elsewhere murdering a man he’d never met.

Prosecutors don’t like to give up. District Attorney Kevin Smith kept Anderson in jail four months, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Finally, he and ADA Scott Tsui dropped charges against Anderson, although their office continues investigating.

So what happened? Molly O'Neal believes the fault might not lie with the lab, despite their recalcitrance, but with the paramedics. She suggests the same paramedics who brought in Lukis Anderson might also have handled the murder victim after failing to properly clean up, thereby contaminating the crime scene.

So…

If only DNA evidence was considered, it would have convincingly put Mr. Anderson in the dock and likely in prison. But thanks to a dedicated public defender,  Molly O'Neal brought justice to the court system, proving her client innocent.

20 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

DNA examples you've provided in this series point out that DNA evidence, like computerization, remains dependent on human handling and is vulnerable to mistakes and mishandling. Great ideas for short stories!

Leigh Lundin said...

That they do, Fran. Like any tool, DNA evidence can be used, misused, or abused– and it says only what it states and nothing more: In this case it said Anderson's DNA was on the body, not that he put it there.

David Dean said...

Exactly right, Leigh. Just as the absence of DNA is not, necessarily, proof positive of a suspect's innocence.

Great articles in this series.

Leigh Lundin said...

David, it dismays me that a lot of people don't understand the concept that one can't prove a negative. A suspect can't prove he was not in some location; he can only attempt to prove he was somewhere else.

Janice law said...

I suspect there is a good book somewhere in your stories of bungling crooks and bungling law enforcement!

Leigh Lundin said...

Janice, I expect so. Recently I read about the leader of a band of burglars who watched CSI and wouldn't let his crew smoke, spit, or use the restrooms during robberies… but he couldn't stop himself from bragging in the pub.

Steve Steinbock said...

Leigh, I can't speak to the use of DNA analysis, but the idea of fugue states, the White Queen, and Impossible Crimes calls to mind something somewhat relevant.

Back in 1943 Craig Rice wrote a novel (under the pseudonym Michael Venning) titled MURDER THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS in which a young man awakens aboard a train with no knowledge of how he got there. His wallet is gone, but in its place he finds ID for a man being sought for a murder. It's not Rice's best work, but it has a great premise.

In the late 1940s the radio series "Suspense" adapted it with Gregory Peck playing the fugue-fugitive.

Leigh Lundin said...

Steve, the title tickles a few grey cells. I'm not sure if I've read it, but I'll have to dig it out and find the radio play. Thanks, Steve!

Leigh Lundin said...

Steve, I found the Suspense radio episode Murder Through the Looking Glass available here:
http://escape-suspense.typepad.com/files/suspense_1949-03-17_murder-through-the-looking-glass_.mp3

Listening now…

Vicki Kennedy said...

Thanks for another great article, Leigh. It goes without saying that any kind of evidence is only as trustworthy as the people who handle it. Basing murder charges solely on DNA “evidence” makes no sense to me.

Leigh Lundin said...

And you're so right, Vicki. Evidence always has to be tempered with common sense.

I was aghast during the Casey Anthony trial when the prosecution introduced evidence about the Anthony's computer. The testimony was obviously wrong to those who know computer internals. It chills me to think how a little bit of knowledge can be so easily misused.

Eve Fisher said...

Love these articles, Leigh. The ins and outs and possible way-outs of DNA is always fascinating.

C.S.Poulsen said...

Oh, if I were just a few years younger... DNA is fascinating and from your writing, I gather it is durable--a good traveler too. Science major...me? If only but DNAs abilities to hang on must be part of a paramedic's training isn't it?

Dixon Hill said...

I was aghast during the Casey Anthony trial when the prosecution introduced evidence about the Anthony's computer. The testimony was obviously wrong to those who know computer internals.

Leigh, have you posted about this in the past, or can we look forward to a post about this subject? I didn't follow the trial (never do follow sensational trials) but I'd love to find out what was wrong with this evidence, from a computer-knowledgeable person's understanding.

A Broad Abroad said...

Frightening how easily an environment can become contaminated.

Thank you for a fascinating series.
Armed with all this ammunition, we await a volley of award-winning stories.

Leigh Lundin said...

Eve, thank you. I got something the size of a jet plane in my right eye and Friday the doctor swabbed the eyeball and inside of my eyelid with a Q-tip. I found myself thinking “Is it merely sterile or is it DNA sterile?”

Claire, as a amateur, I’d describe DNA as sneaky. It can appear in ways and places one might not expect especially in these days where microscopic harvesting has become a reality.

But the interesting thing is that you don’t necessarily need a degree in one of the hard sciences or in some cases even a degree at all to work in a lab or in investigations, but simply an ability to follow procedures in minute detail. (Think of all the med-techs and LPNs you bump into in physicians’ offices.) And integrity helps– more than one case has been sullied or spoiled by technicians trying too enthusiastically to make a case.

Dixon, I recall few specifics at this date but I recall more than one thing struck me. One issue dealt with the hundred or so internet pages supposedly searched by Casey Anthony. No user could have brought up more than a hundred pages in a fraction of a minute, which should have been a red flag (especially with our internet speeds!) It was far more credible Anthony had done one search which tagged many dozens upon dozens of pages, each with links to other pages.

I recall issues with the expert they’d brought in who was writing programs and scripts on the fly. Half of what the guy claimed made little sense and I found it disturbing no one was looking over his shoulder.

I don’t recall if it happened in the Anthony case, but computer forensics should never be conducted by booting from the subject computer’s hard drive. First, you make a back of the hard drive (preferably locked) and then you hang that copy on another computer to study it. Think of a car bomb: Would a technician test it by switching on the car’s ignition?

ABA, thank you! And thank you for drawing my attention to the case.

Jan Grape said...

We all know how crazy juries are now. They expect DNA evidence and expect it to definitely prove guilt or innocence. And they think the report should be in the detective's hands immediately if not sooner. You ought to be able to solve a case in one to two hours like they do on TV. Scary if you're innocent.
The good news is that DNA has be found in the evidence of cold cases to prove someone is not guilty. Happened here in TX last year and they freed a man who had spent 24 years in prison, altho he was innocent.

Leigh Lundin said...

That's true, Jan. It can give truth a fighting chance.

Dixon Hill said...

Thanks, Leigh. I'm sure I'll pick your brain a bit more about this subject at a later date. (You know what a pain I am. LOL)

--Dix

Leigh Lundin said...

Be glad to try, Dixon. Thank you!