Court Roundup

Public defenders weighing appeals in DNA cases

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland Office of the Public Defender is seriously considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in two cases involving rape convictions where DNA analysts’ reports were used but the analysts themselves never testified.
The Daily Record of Baltimore reports that the chief of the office’s forensics division, Stephen B. Mercer, says the office is considering the appeals. One case involves Orville Cooper, who was convicted of a 2006 rape. The other case involves Norman Bruce Derr, who was convicted of a 1984 rape. In both cases, witnesses cited DNA reports but the analysts never testified. One or both cases could be appealed.
This would not be the first time the U.S. Supreme Court has considered the issue. In 2012 the high court upheld a DNA analysis in which the analyst did not testify, but the decision in the case, Williams v. Illinois, did not yield a majority opinion. The lack of a majority opinion in the Williams case “opens the window enough” for the justices to be willing to hear an appeal and refine their previous, fractured decision, said Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor.
If Derr’s case is appealed, it would be the case’s second trip to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2011, Maryland’s highest court overturned Derr’s conviction, saying the failure of the analyst to testify violated the Confrontation Clause. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which vacated the Maryland court’s decision and remanded it with instructions to reconsider it in light of the Williams decision. The Court of Appeals of Maryland, the state’s highest court, has since affirmed Derr’s conviction, citing Justice Clarence Thomas’ opinion in Williams, which said that a DNA analysis report does not implicate the Confrontation Clause because it is non-testimonial and “lacks the solemnity of an affidavit or deposition.”
David Paulson, a spokesman for Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, said if the public defender appeals, his office “will be prepared and be able to cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Hearing waived for teen accused in brothers deaths

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The attorney for a 15-year-old boy charged in the deaths of his younger adopted brothers has waived the right to a preliminary hearing.
Davis County legal defender coordinator Todd Utzinger informed a juvenile court judge of the decision Tuesday morning during a hearing that was scheduled to go over the state’s evidence.
Utzinger says he would rather use the court’s time to focus on an upcoming certification hearing in which a juvenile court judge will decide if the teen will be tried as an adult or juvenile.
Prosecutors want him tried as an adult so that he’s not released when he turns 21. Utzinger says the case should stay in juvenile court because his client is so young.

Judge won’t drop charges in deadly UCLA lab fire

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A judge refused to dismiss charges against a UCLA chemistry professor over a 2008 laboratory fire that killed a research assistant.
Attorneys for Patrick Harran argued Monday that the university, not Harran, was Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji’s employer and he wasn’t criminally liable, City News Service reported.
However, Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli said the professor had authority to recruit, interview and hire personnel.
“The court concludes that he’s an employer. Period,” the judge said.
Sangji was in Harran’s organic chemistry laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, on Dec. 29, 2008. She was transferring the chemical tert-Butyllithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands and the chemical spilled, igniting on contact with the air. Sangji wasn’t wearing a lab coat. Her synthetic sweater melted into her skin and she suffered burns over nearly half her body. She died 18 days after the incident.
Prosecutors contend that Harran, 44, failed to provide safety instructions and equipment for his lab researchers.
Harran is charged with three counts of willful violation of an occupational safety and health standard causing death. He faces up to 4 1/2 years in prison if convicted.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined the university nearly $32,000 in May 2009.
Criminal charges also were filed against the UC regents. They were dropped after the regents promised to follow comprehensive safety measures and endow a $500,000 environmental law scholarship in Sangji’s name at UC Berkeley’s law school.

State to appeal injunction in case of abortion clinic

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi has filed a notice that it will ask a federal appeals court to overturn a judge’s ruling that temporarily blocked authorities from closing the state’s only abortion clinic.
U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III ruled in April that the state couldn’t close Jackson Women’s Health Organization while the clinic still has a federal lawsuit pending.
The state filed a notice on Friday that it would ask the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to overturn the decision.
The clinic’s lawsuit, filed last summer in U.S. District Court in Jackson, challenges a 2012 state law that requires each OB-GYN who does abortions at the clinic to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
Supporters of the law, including Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, say it’s designed to protect women’s health, but opponents say it’s designed to close the clinic and cut off access to abortion.
Jordan allowed the law to take effect, but he blocked the state from closing the clinic while the clinic tried to get admitting privileges. Such privileges can be difficult to obtain, because hospitals often won’t give them to out-of-state physicians. The clinic uses out-of-state OB-GYNs, including one from Chicago.
The lawsuit is scheduled for trial March 3.

New Jersey
Prosecutors: Man recorded sex assaults of girl

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Federal prosecutors say a northern New Jersey man sexually abused a young girl and filmed the attacks.
Pedro Rios faces two counts of sexually exploiting a child. The 57-year-old Newark man is due to appear in court Tuesday afternoon.
Authorities executed a search warrant at Rios’s home in February, and a forensic review of the computer equipment seized revealed several child porn videos that appeared to be self-produced. They allegedly depict Rios abusing the girl in the rear of a tractor-trailer truck cab.
Law enforcement officers identified a girl who claimed Rios would periodically drive her to his truck in Union County, where they had sex. Rios allegedly threatened to hurt her family if she told anyone.
Rios faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted on both counts.

Woman found guilty in killing of 12-year-old boy

HOUSTON (AP) — A judge has returned a guilty verdict against a woman accused in the 2010 slaying of a 12-year-old Houston boy.
State District Judge Jeannine Barr on Tuesday found 47-year-old Mona Nelson guilty of capital murder in the death of Jonathan Foster. The child disappeared Christmas Eve 2010 and prosecutors had argued Nelson killed the boy before stuffing his badly burned body in a culvert.
Nelson had requested that Barr determine the verdict rather than a jury.
She will receive a prison term of life without parole. Prosecutors had not sought the death penalty.
Prosecutors said during the trial that surveillance video showed Nelson disposing of the boy’s body. They argued Nelson was drunk when she became angry when the child wouldn’t let her into the apartment where he lived.