Popular crime shows would have you believe that the analysis of forensic evidence is the key to finding the perpetrator of a crime. But is forensic evidence reliable?  DNA evidence, blood spatter patterns, bite marks, finger prints and other common types of forensic evidence have been subjected to scrutiny and some just don’t hold up. For example, I previously wroteabout an innocent man who spent 33 years in prison based on bite mark analysis – a forensic evidence technique that has been discredited in the scientific community but continues to be used by prosecutors.

Similarly, other forensic analysis methods have been questioned, or even debunked, by science but continue to be an important part of the prosecution’s arsenal. In the popular imagination, these techniques provide a slam-dunk conviction. But most members of the public, from whom a jury of peers is selected, would be surprised to learn—and perhaps even reject—the proposition that quite often forensic evidence is nothing but junk science. Overcoming this bias takes the persuasive skills of criminal defense attorney who is up on the science and can communicate a reasonable doubt about the forensic evidence.

Here’s one that may surprise the average reader: Even positive DNA evidence may not be evidence at all. The common assumption is that if a suspect’s DNA is found on the victim or at a crime scene, the suspect is positively implicated in the crime. But that is not always true. Often the DNA evidence is in trace amounts but is thought to be conclusive evidence of the suspect’s presence at the scene. DNA analysis has become so sophisticated that forensic technologists can pick up even the smallest amounts of DNA. The problem is that humans shed DNA all the time and everywhere. When you touch anything, you will leave your DNA. Another person touching the same object can then pick up your DNA. This is referred to as the “touch-transfer” property of DNA. So, imagine that you took a public bus. Another passenger on that bus picked up your DNA and shortly thereafter committed a crime. Your DNA may very well show up in forensic analysis, implicating you in the crime.

Not just in California, but across the county, bail reformis a hot topic. Why? Because the bail systemeffectively consigns many defendants to incarceration before they are found guilty…or innocent. Defendants who are unable to come up with the funds to make bail often remain incarcerated until final judgment, but those with means are able to make bail and secure their release from jail prior to the final adjudication of their case. Not only does this result in the incarceration of many “innocent until proven guilty” individuals, it creates an unfair system where those with money can pay to get out of jail while awaiting disposition while those with limited funds and resources cannot.

California, like many states, is struggling to address the money bail system. The Bail Reform Bill, Senate Bill 10, which was introduced by the California Legislature in December of 2016 was recently approved by Governor Brown and is scheduledto go into effect on October 1, 2019. This new law will effectively eliminate the money bail system. California is the first state in the union to enact such a law.

The new bail system will require judges to decide whether to release someone from jail prior to final judgment (i.e., conviction by trial or pleaor a dismissal) based on a pre-trial risk assessment of the defendant. The risk assessment will be conducted by Pretrial Assessment Services using a “validated risk assessment tool.” The assessment tool will give each defendant a “risk score.” The assessment tool is designed to evaluate the risk of a defendant’s evasion of the charges (for example, fleeing the state or failing to appear) and the defendant’s risk to public safety. The language of the bill creates low, medium, and high risk categories. Once this bill is enacted, a defendant will not be required to post bail. (You might wonder what will happen to all the bail bond companies. It looks like they will go the way of the proverbial buggy-whip maker and, at least in California, will have to find other work.)

Back in the mid to late 1980’s law enforcement and prosecutors started using the new technology of DNA testing to solve crimes.  Soon thereafter, criminal defense attorneys recognized that DNA testing can not only help solve crimes but can also be used to exonerate individualswrongly accused or convicted of a crime.  Very soon thereafter, in 1992, the Innocence Projectwas founded and since that time has, using DNA evidence, succeeded in challenging the conviction of over 350 wrongfully convicted individuals, 20 of whom were on death row.

As it became evident that there are hundreds, or more likely thousands, of wrongfully convicted individuals serving time, many prosecutors across the country, including the Orange County District Attorney Office, have taken up their own mantel to identify individuals whom their office has wrongfully convicted. Usually called a “conviction integrity unit”, but also known as “wrongful convictions unit”, or as in Orange County a “convictions review unit”, these departments are charged with reviewing claims of innocence from those who were convicted in each respective county. There are critics of the conviction integrity units, of course, including the founder of the Innocence Project, Barry Scheck.  Concerned that these units are just window dressing, Mr. Scheck and others believe many are not committed to the task they claim to serve.

But some conviction integrity units have indeed identified and exonerated individuals whom their office previously and zealously charged with a crime. One recent high-profile and rather strange example concerns Valentino Dixon, who was convicted in New York state of a murdercommitted in 1991. Now 48 years old, Mr. Dixon spent 27 years in state prison. During his time in prison, he drew golf course scenes which were both vivid and luxurious even though Mr. Dixon had never set foot on a golf course. Mr. Dixon’s golf-scapes eventually led to his exoneration for the murder, which he did not commit.  How he came to draw these beautiful scenes is another story, but the punchline is that the editors at Golf Digest saw his work and profiled it in the magazine.

When a person accused of a crime hires a defense attorney, every communication between the defendant and his or her attorney is privileged communication, meaning anything the accused tells the attorney cannot be divulged by the attorney nor can the attorney be forced to give up information the client has revealed. With certain exceptions, this also applies to communications between a potential client and an attorney, such as a consultation with an attorney before deciding whether to hire the attorney.

The purpose for this privilege is self-evident: If the client is not able to freely speak to his or her attorney, the attorney may be hindered in providing an effective legal defense.  Although not a constitutional doctrine, the privilege implicates the constitutional protections of the Fifth Amendment (right against self-incrimination) and Sixth Amendment (right to legal counsel).  As such, the privilege is one of the oldest recognized confidential communication privileges.

Imagine if this privilege did not exist and the prosecution or law enforcement could be free to learn the details of communications between an attorney and client, whether surreptitiously or by force. Clients would rightfully be concerned about telling their attorney everything and the attorney could have a serious disadvantage defending such a client. That is why, with few exceptions, law enforcement cannot listen in on conversations a client has with his or her attorney and cannot subpoena— or otherwise legally force— information a client has given his or her attorney.

For some mentally ill defendants, alternative sentencingoptions aren’t available, they might not be eligible for court ordered treatment under Laura’s Lawor the treatment failed, or perhaps they have been in a repetitive cycle of Penal Code section 1368 mental incompetencytreatment.  Whatever the failures of the justice system to adequately address the mentally ill defendant, the real effects on the defendant, and often his or her family, can be overwhelming.

In California, persons with severe psychiatric disorders may be placed under a mental health conservatorship. Commonly called a LPS Conservatorship (Lanterman Petris Short Act, codified at Welfare & Institutions Code, sections 5000 et seq.), this type of conservatorship is designed to force certain mentally ill persons into treatment.  While this treatment is usually in a facility, it may be outpatient treatment and/or medications. The treatment is determined and directed by the conservator after court approval. The statutory purpose of an LPS Conservatorship is “toprovide individualized treatment, supervision, and placement [of a severely mentally ill adult.” (Welfare & Institutions Code §5150.) The process of obtaining an LPS Conservatorship is not easy but for the family of a person who is severely mentally ill and in and out of the criminal justice system due to the mental illness, this conservatorship may provide relief

While the LPS Conservatorship may be the best alternative for the family of mentally ill individuals, the family or, for that matter, any private person cannot start a LPS Conservatorship. However, after the conservatorship is ordered by the court, a family member (or other appointed individual) can be the conservator.  An LPS Conservatorship can only be requested to the county Public Guardian Office by a mental health facility professional, in most cases after the mentally ill individual has been ordered to evaluation pursuant to Welfare & Institutions Code sections 5150 and 5250.

Continuing my discussion on mental illness and the criminal justice system, I now turn to a little-known California law that was enacted in 2002, known as Laura’s Law. This legislation, codified in the California Welfare and Institutions Code, sections 5345 et seq., permits the court to order certain persons to obtain assisted outpatient mental health treatment.  Directed at seriously mentally ill adults who have previously been treated in a mental health unit of a correctional facility or have a history of one or more acts of violence towards self or others, this law permits the county mental health department to file a petition to the court requesting the subject individual be ordered to treatment. A request to the mental health department to file the petition may be made by the subject individual’s parent, sibling, or spouse, or by a person who resides with the subject individual.  The request can also be made by treatment centers, hospitals, or other care agencies who are providing care to the subject individual or by a peace, parole, or probation officer.   Extensive due process requirements are written into the law; the court must carefully consider defined criteria before ordering an individual to treatment.

For my clients who are struggling with a mentally ill adult child or sibling who is caught in a seemingly endless revolving doorin the criminal justice system, this statute could provide relief.  The provisions of Laura’s Law leave implementation of the statute to each individual county and has been adopted by Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego counties. In fact, Orange County was the first large county in California to adopt the law.

Laura’s Law is not the same as what is known as a 5150 hold, where a person can be involuntarily committed to psychiatric facility for up to 72 hours for an assessment and possibly 14 additional days for treatment. (Welfare and Institutions Code sections 5150 and 5250.) Laura’s Law does not commit a person to a facility; rather, it is an order for outpatient treatment. Unlike 5150/5250 holds, which mandates the release of the mentally ill individual from treatment whether he or she has shown any improvement after the statutory period, Laura’s Law mandates sustained and intensive treatment until a mental health professional deems the individual well enough to maintain treatment on their own.

As a criminal defense attorney in Orange County, I am sometimes left with the heart-wrenching task of helping the parents of an adult child with a mental illness wind their way through our state justice system; a system that often leaves no room for opportunities to address the underlying basis for the crime—the mental illness—but rather seeks only to punish. A person who suffers from schizophrenia, severe bi-polar disorder, or other serious mental illness is probably not going to be rehabilitated by incarceration. Yet all too often, mentally ill individuals commit crimes for which they are sent to jail or prison only to be released and start the cycle again.

Parents of these individuals are understandably frustrated and often at their wit’s end. Why, they ask me, does the system keep punishing my child for these crimes he or she commits (crimes driven only by his or her mental illness), rather than providing mental health treatment?  After their child has been through the revolving door enough times, the parents want to know, why can’t they just “lock him up” in a residential facility? Unless the crimes committed are serious felonies, their mentally ill child will not be “locked up” for long. Unfortunately, incarceration in jail or prison can exacerbate the mental illness.

While recent California legislation, which offers pre-trial diversion to some mentally ill defendants, attempts to address this issue, the problem is wider and deeper than the new pre-trial diversion legislation alone can solve, but it’s a start. Until the recently enacted pre-trial diversion legislation, mentally ill defendants who were not in certain classes (veterans, some drug cases), entered and exited the justice system without the system ever genuinely addressing the underlying reason for their criminal behavior.

Most criminal convictions require a showing of intent or an understanding that an act or omission will result in the commission of a crime. This is expressed by the Latin term “mens rea,” which as “guilty mind.”  In common law and up to this day, this standard has been applied, even when it is clear that the defendant suffers from a mental disorder. (There is an insanity defense, but that is a very difficult defense to prove and can result in indefinite detention.)

As our scientific understanding of the brain and the disorders that affect it advances and, indeed, as we reevaluate the concept of free will, it has become increasingly clear to many that not all criminal actors have a guilty mind. Recognizing that mental disorders often have a significant relationship to criminal offenses, the California Legislature passed a law that is effective immediately which attempts to make headway in how offenders with certain mental disorders including (but not limited to) bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and PTSD are dealt with in the criminal justice system. The new law, codified as Penal Code section 1001.66 seeks a more effective way to address these defendants both in terms of rehabilitating the offender and as a way to reduce the financial costs borne by taxpayers to incarcerate these individuals, often through the criminal justice “revolving door.”

Not every offender with a mental disorder will be eligible; the statute specifically excludes those diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, or pedophilia, but, in the discretion of the judge presiding over the case, a defendant with other mental disorders may be granted a pre-trial diversion. This diversion is available to all eligible defendants regardless of whether they are charged with a misdemeanor or felony and those with prior convictions are eligible. However, if the court finds the defendant poses an unreasonable danger to the public, the diversion will not be granted. The diversion is only available to those defendants who have not yet been convicted.

I have previously writtenon these pages about the alleged prosecutorial misconduct by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office—misconduct that made national headlines. That incident prompted the California Legislature to introduce and enact a new lawthat that punishes California prosecutors who tamper with or withhold exculpatory evidence.

Prosecutorial misconduct is a problem across our nation’s criminal courts. I don’t mean to imply that all district attorneys’ offices are in the business of intentionally hiding or manipulating exculpatory or exonerating evidence, but it’s enough of a problem to be concerned. Sometimes the life of an innocent person is on the line because of—to put it charitably—overzealous prosecution.

Take the case of John Thompson. In 1984, he was convicted ofrobberyand murderin Louisiana. He was sentenced to death. Fortunately for Mr. Thompson, Louisiana is not a state quick to execute death row prisoners. After 18 years in prison—14 on death row—Mr. Thompson was exonerated and released. Turns out there was evidence that Mr. Thompson was innocent of the crime but the district attorney prosecuting the case concealed that evidence.


Have you sent your spit to one of the genetic-testing companies? It can be interesting to find out our DNA ancestry and perhaps proactive to learn if you might be genetically predisposed to certain health risks. And the police are interested in your DNA profile too.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, a person dubbed the “Golden State Killer” murdered12 individuals and raped45 women throughout California, including in Orange County. Police knew it was one person who committed these crimes because they had collected the DNA of the suspect in each of these cases. But they couldn’t find a match for the DNA. While the FBI and state law enforcement agencies have routinely collected DNA from arrestees and/or individuals convicted of crimes, the Golden State Killer’s DNA was not in any DNA data bank.

Earlier this year, police found their man. Now 72 years old and a former police officer (who committed some of the crimes while still working as an officer), the suspected Golden State Killer was arrested this spring.