Understanding DNA Evidence in Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions: An Interview with Chris Lindberg

Very few things happen quite like they are depicted on TV, especially when it comes to crime investigation. But DNA has become more and more important to investigators and prosecutors —  in building cases, being able to explain evidence to juries, and being sure they have the right defendant to go to trial.

You don’t have to be a science major, though, to understand at least the basics of DNA — it just takes the right teacher to explain it.

 

Check out this recorded webinar as Chris Lindberg of the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office shares: 

  • how DNA evidence is gathered, analyzed, and presented in Court in a criminal prosecution,
  • the benefits and pitfalls of this silent biological witness that is present at almost every crime scene,
  • some exciting new trends in DNA analysis that promise to solve even more cases in the future.

 

Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Chris,  you’re a new presenter for us here at Justice Clearinghouse. Share with us a bit about your background.  What drew you to this career path and area of expertise?

Chris Lindberg: Sure – I’ve been a deputy district attorney in San Diego County for over 20 years now.  Time goes by so fast!  During that time,  I’ve prosecuted a wide variety of cases – child molestation, domestic violence, elder abuse,  narcotics – and I’m currently in the Gang prosecution unit where I generally handle crimes of violence and murders.

I was drawn to criminal prosecution and the law because I believe in community service, helping victims, protecting the community, and holding offenders accountable for the harm they cause.

But, also criminal law and trial work is fascinating – it can be a window into a world of anger, revenge, jealousy, shady dealing, and violence, and, at the district attorney’s office, we have a front-row seat.  And that’s before things even get to Court where anything can happen – and often does.  Among lawyers, those who practice criminal law have the best stories.

 

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Every prosecutor and investigator should have

at least a general idea of what DNA is, and how it works.

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JCH: You’re a lawyer by training.  How did you build such a depth of expertise in DNA?  

Chris: I’m not only a lawyer, but I was a philosophy major in college so science is clearly not my strong suit.   I am living proof that you don’t need a scientific background to have a functional, working knowledge of the ways in which DNA can help in criminal investigations and trials.   I started out knowing next to nothing about DNA.

That all changed in 2012, when I co-chaired two trials, each involving multiple murders, one of which was a death penalty case, where DNA played a crucial role. In dividing up the case with my co-counsel,  I took on the DNA part of the case and haven’t looked back.   During this time, I ended up getting an education (by immersion) in the science and capabilities of forensic DNA and how it can be used and how it can be attacked in a criminal case.  Since then, I’ve been helping prosecutors and law enforcement understand and accept advances in DNA in criminal investigations and the courtroom, as well as prosecuted a number of other cases in which DNA played a key role.

 

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I believe in community service, helping victims, protecting the community,

and holding offenders accountable for the harm they cause.

~~~~~

 

JCH: How has this depth of knowledge made you a better prosecutor? Helped close cases?  

Chris: It’s only an exaggeration to say DNA is the wave of the future because the future is already here.  More and more cases involved DNA testing and rely on DNA evidence and a working knowledge of DNA can make life so much easier (and less stressful) when those cases come in.   DNA evidence is not just in murders anymore – but can be in almost any case, for example:  robbery, sex assault,  burglary, auto theft, drug trafficking, assault; almost anything.  Every prosecutor and investigator should have at least a general idea of what it is, and how it works.

 

~~~~~

I am living proof that you don’t need a scientific background

to have a functional, working knowledge of the ways

in which DNA can help in criminal investigations and trials.

~~~~~

 

JCH: A lot of people only know about DNA based on what they see on TV – and we all know how realistic CSI is! What’s the biggest myth or misconception people have about DNA? 

Chris: There are a couple myths, I think, that are still floating around out there.  One is that one person’s DNA can be contaminated and somehow turn into someone else’s  DNA.   That’s not exactly how it works – you can certainly accidentally add DNA to an evidentiary sample, and DNA can degrade to the point where it’s unusable – but there’s nothing that will change one person’s DNA into another’s.

Another myth is that water will wash out DNA. That’s not necessarily true.  For example, we’ve had good luck in investigations in retrieving DNA from cigarette butts that were left floating in a toilet.  In the lab, they use bleach, not water, to clean avoid accidental contamination.

 

 

JCH: While I know you are passionate about what you do, there are a lot of demands placed on our justice professionals these days. Given everything that you see when working a case, what keeps you motivated to keep going?

Chris: For me, it’s all about the community. It’s a crazy world out there, but I can be part of a team dedicated to making this little corner of it just a bit better and safer for everyone.

 

Click Here to Watch “DNA Basics: Understanding DNA Evidence in Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions.”

 

 

Additional Resources
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