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Free forensics courses offered to Va. lawyers

DNA molecule in hermetic capsuleThe Virginia Department of Forensic Sciences will host a series of free courses on DNA for law professionals this Fall in four locations across the state.

Representatives from the DFS said they are offering the courses in an effort to better train defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges, so that they might better utilize forensic information at trial.

“Really it’s designed to help the attorneys and judges who have to use and evaluate forensic science testing in their cases to have the background to understand the methods and practices of a particular discipline,” Katya Herndon, the chief deputy director of the DFS, said.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge Bradley Cavedo said the courses also offer a more cost-effective way for defense attorneys to learn about countering DNA evidence.

“We get requests from defense attorneys all the time to appoint a DNA expert so they can get into the science and know what questions to ask in cross examination,” Cavedo said. “With this knowledge and background they can do that and not have to request thousands of dollars.”

It came from Arizona

The idea for the forensics courses for law professionals originated at a conference in Arizona, which leads the nation in forensic science education.

A DFS representative brought the idea back to Virginia and pitched it to a group of 35 stakeholders representing public defenders, commonwealth’s attorneys, private defense lawyers and medical examiners. The group expressed overwhelming interest and set to work organizing and planning the program.

The group chose to offer four limited courses on one subject in the program’s first year due to limited resources.

“We wanted to start with a pilot project in one discipline,” Herndon said. “It soon became pretty apparent that this was something people were excited about.”

As a result of surveys and group discussion, the group landed on DNA as the first topic of study.

The case for DNA

While interest in DNA was not universal, representatives from the group said the topic was a consensus pick based on the lack of current understanding surrounding it.

“DNA is very complicated. Most attorneys don’t have a background in science, so learning about DNA is challenging,” Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers stakeholder Bryan Jones said. “Going to the lab and being able to learn hands-on with the forensic scientists working in the lab is a great way to better understand the scientific evidence.”

Cavedo said that he thought the group chose DNA because it comes up so often in courtrooms.

“In the Circuit Court we see DNA cases over and over and over,” Cavedo said. “Everybody agreed, if there’s one thing we can afford to know more about, it’s DNA.”

Since the idea behind the program is to inform law professionals about a breadth of forensic information, organizers say they plan to create lessons on different forensic topics in future years, depending on demand.

“The plan was to start training on a single subject in all four labs,” Herndon said. “The hope is that we’ll expand and add subjects down the road.”

For now though, since the program is relying on existing staff to lead the programs, the courses will be limited to DNA.

Other topics

Maria Jankowski, the deputy director of the Indigent Defense Commission said that while majority ruled on the topic choice, she hopes crime scene investigation is considered for future courses.

“As a defense attorney, I have the least amount of knowledge in that regard,” Jankowski said.

Other noteworthy topics that are being discussed for future programs include firearms forensics, toxicology, drug screening, blood evidence and digital forensic evidence training.

“Everything the DSS lab tests we could do a lesson on,” Chesapeake Commonwealth’s Attorney Nancy Parr said.

Parr and other stakeholders expressed interest in having shorter, half-day lessons on multiple topics in the future.

“With the legitimacy of science being challenged more and more, it’s important to be educated,” Parr said.

The application process

Herndon and DFS Director Linda Jackson said the programs are going to each be limited to groups of 25 attorneys and judges and that the lessons will take place in eight-hour courses.

The programs will be held at DFS labs in Norfolk Sept. 14, Roanoke Oct. 12, Richmond Nov. 2 and Manassas Nov. 9.

CLE credit will not be offered, but the courses will be free of charge.

“We wanted it to be interactive sessions,” Jackson said. “We’re limiting it to 25 attorneys … for each session, so we have an application/screenings process.”

Herndon said that the group plans to get the application on their website by the beginning of June so that interested parties can apply by the June 22 deadline. For planning purposes, those who are accepted will find out by mid-July.

Cavedo said that constituent groups will select participants.

“I have a feeling there will be a lot of demand for this, and we’ll be turning away a lot of people,” Cavedo said. As a result, he said he suspects DFS might offer DNA courses again next year.

The interest extends to the state Supreme Court, Cavedo said.

“Chief Justice [Lemons] has a serious interest in developing education among judges within the technologies of the law,” Cavedo said. “I believe he is very happy with the way this is progressing.”