FDLE says no cases in danger

By Rene Stutzman
Sentinel Staff Writer

July 20, 2002

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Friday defended itself and an analyst who resigned after being caught switching DNA samples and altering data at the agency's Orlando lab, saying there's no indication he falsified evidence in criminal cases.

However, the directors of two private DNA labs said the FDLE had not done enough research to know whether that was true.

John Fitzpatrick admitted Feb. 1 to doctoring the results of a test designed to check the quality of his work and the lab's ability to analyze DNA.

Fitzpatrick resigned two weeks later rather than be fired, said Suzanne Livingston, who oversees all seven FDLE crime labs.

But she insists that FDLE believes it was his only transgression.

"It had nothing to do with his [criminal] case work," she said, only the test. "As far as I know, he was a fine employee until this came up."

Once it discovered the problem, FDLE re-tested about 10 cases, she said, but only open cases -- ones that Fitzpatrick had begun, but on which work still remained. It's common for several lab employees to be involved in a case.

And while three in-house DNA experts pored over his other work during his last 90 days on the job, Livingston said, none of the closed cases -- or any previous ones -- were re-tested.

"We didn't rework any of those cases . . . because we saw nothing wrong with them," she said.

Terry Melton, a DNA expert who runs a small laboratory, Mitotyping Technologies, in State College, Pa., said she would have ordered a more extensive investigation.

"Every case that person had ever worked on should probably be reviewed," she said. "It's not in the same category as an honest mistake."

Another DNA lab director, Mark Stolorow, agreed.

Why look only at cases that Fitzpatrick hadn't finished, asked Stolorow, who manages four labs for Orchid Cellmark, based in Germantown, Md.

He pointed out that Fitzpatrick went back to falsify his findings in the proficiency test after he'd initially completed it, so the lab should investigate whether he did the same thing in criminal cases.

Livingston called Fitzpatrick's cheating "a lack of judgment from an otherwise good employee."

He joined the agency in 1997, and had been doing DNA and blood analysis since 1998, according to his resume. In January, while giving a sworn statement to attorneys in an Orange County rape case, he said he had testified about DNA in court five times.

Fitzpatrick likely will be called back into court to defend his work and the agency's reputation.

Judge delays hearing

A Sanford judge Thursday ordered a two-week delay in an evidentiary hearing when attorneys for triple-murder suspect Michael Reynolds pointed out that Fitzpatrick might have been involved in the DNA analysis that put their client at the murder scene.

Livingston on Friday confirmed that Fitzpatrick had been involved in the Reynolds case but said his role was a small one.

Reynolds could face the death penalty if he were to be convicted in the slaying of an 11-year-old girl and her parents in Geneva in 1998.

Livingston said the agency had a built-in system of double checks designed to catch anyone falsifying evidence or simply making unintentional DNA identification errors.

If Fitzpatrick had altered evidence in criminal cases, those internal checks would have caught it, she said.

"There has never been a quality issue with him," she said.

Fitzpatrick could not be located for comment.

But defense attorneys are expected to begin aggressively attacking his work. It's possible every case he was involved in could be challenged, even those in which he was not the main analyst, such as the Reynolds triple homicide.

Reynolds' attorney, Steve Laurence, said he plans to ask a judge to throw out all the blood evidence against his client because of Fitzpatrick.

In Orange County, prosecutors have begun preparing the family of a 10-year-old rape victim for the prospect of a retrial because Fitzpatrick was the analyst who helped convict Bruce Hunsicker on March 1.

Livingston said her agency would retest any sample handled by Fitzpatrick if prosecutors asked, but so far, none has.

Assistant State Attorney Chris White, chief of operations in Sanford, said Friday that although Fitzpatrick had done DNA testing in two pending murder cases in Seminole County -- those of Arnold Satones and James Blackburn -- he would not ask for new tests.

FDLE letter dated May 3

Livingston said the FDLE notified every relevant State Attorney's Office about Fitzpatrick's cheating and resignation.

The letter sent to Lawson Lamar, state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties, however, is dated May 3, after a prosecutor in his office stumbled across the information on her own, and more than three months after Fitzpatrick was barred from doing any more DNA analysis at the lab.

In that letter, FDLE attorney Steve Brady wrote that there was no need for prosecutors to tell defense attorneys about Fitzpatrick's cheating.

"Because defense attorneys can obtain this information themselves, there is no duty on the state to furnish it to the defense," he wrote.

Rene Stutzman can be reached at rstutzman@orlandosentinel.com or 407-324-7294.

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