Trust Only Science

In preparing my cross examination of a chemist for a criminal drug trial in the early 1980s, I was introduced to a  then-retired scientist, Dr. Max Solomon. We ended up spending weeks together as Dr. Solomon taught me the ABCs of chemistry and drug identification. After that initial success, we became friends and collaborated on many matters right up until his death 10 years ago.

Max was a fascinating character whose interests included cinema (he made movies when he was young), literature (he wrote several books) and, of course, science. Our friendship inspired me to develop a joint presentation utilizing our skill sets: law and science. We traveled the country together, addressing any group that asked us to speak, and there were many. In addition, we published articles in national and local magazines encouraging lawyers to see science as an ally and not something to be fearful of.

Dr. Solomon believed that crime would decrease as science progressed. He opined that individuals would be deterred as apprehension and prosecution became easier with progress in science. For him, the cases that didn’t involve science, the ones that relied on police investigations and subjective identifications, were too often prone to error. Therefore, said Max, it was imperative that the information provided by the prosecutor be forthright, vetted and above reproach. Often, as a defense attorney, you are forced to rely on the good faith of the prosecutor to provide you with all necessary discovery—including, most importantly, any information that is deemed to be exculpatory.

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A recent case that illustrates this principle is People vs. Steven Odiase. Eight years ago, on a warm June evening, a 15-year old named Juan Jerez was gunned down on a Bronx street corner. The closest building to the shooting was a relatively small apartment house on Minerva Place. Diligently canvassing the building, the police began on the sixth floor (the top floor) and worked their way down. Many doors didn’t open but 15 did. Most neighbors said they had heard something but didn’t know anything more. Then, they struck pay dirt. A woman in the building claimed she had actually seen the shooter and provided the following description: “He was a tall dark-skinned male with a gray sweater and gray hoodie with blue jeans. He had a heavy beard.” This information was dutifully memorialized in the investigating detective’s paperwork (form DD5).

Mr. Odiase, a short, light-skinned and clean-shaven black man, was arrested along with another individual, and accused of the murder. The other man who was arrested confessed to the murder, but Steven Odiase vehemently maintained his innocence.

The prosecution had a witness. A person who was described as “shaky” and who had only identified the defendant two years after the murder was called to the stand. In dramatic fashion, the witness pointed the finger at Mr. Odiase, suggesting he was the one who fired the shot that killed Juan Jerez.

When it was the defense’s turn to present evidence, you would expect that they would call to the stand the woman who had given the police a critical and detailed description that did not match Mr. Odiase’s appearance. But there was one problem. When the prosecutor had handed over the discovery to the lawyers representing Mr. Odiase, that critical description of the murderer was whited out. In fact, the interview and the existence of the witness herself had been “redacted” from the DD5 form turned over to the defense. So the defense had no idea that this witness even existed. Steven was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

After the conviction, the system all but forgot about Steven Odiase. He was just another inmate who had gone to trial and lost. However, his sister, Kalimah, never lost faith and never stopped fighting to have her brother cleared of a horrendous crime that she knew he had not committed.

After years of struggle, her efforts finally paid off. The case came to the attention of the “conviction integrity unit” of the Bronx District Attorney’s office. Luckily, they were able to locate the old police report in its original form. They then notified Mr. Odiase’s new lawyers who then arranged to interview the all-important Minerva Place eyewitness.

At the interview, the eyewitness revealed that she had told the police that she went to high school with the shooter and even gave them her yearbook with his picture in it. He was NOT Steven Odiase. Subsequently, Mr. Odiase was released from prison after serving almost eight years for a crime he didn’t commit. Why there was no follow-up by the police, no one knows. I do know that were my friend, Max, still alive, he would be shaking his head and insisting as he always did, “trust only science.”

Rest in peace, Max. You are missed.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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