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Name: People v. Nelson
Case #: S147051
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 06/16/2008

Under California law, whether the state’s delay in filing charges violates due process is determined by balancing the justification for the delay against the prejudice demonstrated by defendant. In 2002, appellant was charged for a 1976 murder, after comparison of evidence from the murder scene with appellant’s DNA profile identified him as a possible donor. Appellant argued that the delay in charging him with the crime resulted in a violation of his due process right to a fair trial. The court found that the justification for the delay was strong as it was for investigative purposes and there was no indication of negligence or delay for tactical reasons. The delay resulted from insufficient evidence to identify appellant as a suspect and once the forensic technology became available to so identify appellant, the prosecution proceeded promptly. The product rule’s admissibility in a cold hit case is a question of relevance and not scientific acceptance and, therefore, is not subject to a Kelly test of acceptance in the scientific community. A cold hit case is one that is unsolved but inactive. In recent years, many of these cases have come to prosecution as a result of DNA analysis of the crime scene and comparison with established databases, such as those compiled by the Department of Justice. The DNA analysis compares a person’s genetic structure from the database with crime scene samples to determine whether the person’s structure matches that of the crime scene sample, such that the person could have donated the sample. The “product rule” is a statistical method to calculate the rarity of a given DNA sample in the relevant population, expressed as the probability of a single random person possessing the same DNA profile as the person whose DNA was found at a crime scene. In this case, the prosecution presented evidence over objection that the DNA profile on the victim’s vaginal swab would occur at random among unrelated individuals in about one in 950 sextillion [that’s with 22 zeros] African-Americans, one in 130 septillion Caucasians, and one in 930 sextillion Hispanics. With such evidence, it was virtually impossible that anyone other than defendant could have left the crime scene evidence. Appellant argued that the “product rule” could not be applied in cold hit cases because it presupposes a randomly selected person. Thus, he contended, when a suspect is found by a search of a DNA database the chance of a coincidental match is increased. The Supreme Court concluded that use of the product rule in a cold hit case was not the application of a new scientific technique subject to a further Kelly (People v. Kelly (1976) 17 Cal.3d 24) test, and the fact that the match ultimately came about by means of a database search did not deprive the statistic of all relevance under Evidence Code section 210.