Orange County's Crime Lab Accused of Doctoring DNA Analysis In Murder Cases

Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana: How much confidence can we have in convictions here?EXPAND
Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana: How much confidence can we have in convictions here?
R. Scott Moxley

A onetime high-ranking Orange County Crime Lab official is being accused of doctoring key DNA analysis by giving conflicting testimony that aided prosecutors win two homicide trials.

At issue are divergent, sworn statements Senior Forensic Scientist Mary Hong made in People v. Lynn Dean Johnson in 2008 and People v. Wendell Patrick Lemond the following year, according to records filed Sept. 23 in Orange County Superior Court.

The Johnson case stems from the May 1985 killing of 19-year-old restaurant hostess Bridgett Lamon, who was found partially stripped in an Anaheim commercial trash dumpster. Three months later, in an unrelated crime that led to the Lemond case, relatives discovered 20-year-old office worker Catherine Ann Tameny murdered in her Anaheim apartment.

In part because of a plethora of suspects and inconclusive physical evidence, professional homicide detectives couldn’t formally solve either case for more than two decades, not until Hong reopened forensic probes and provided deputy district attorneys Howard Gundy and Kevin Haskins (now a judge) information that would nail their targets: Johnson and Lemond.

But Deputy Public Defender Scott Sanders, who represented Johnson, claims in his 133-page court filing that Hong misled jurors and the veteran prosecutors improperly hid evidence that would have wrecked her courthouse credibility by exposing her flip-flops. 

During the 2008 Johnson trial, Hong testified that the low quantity of semen recovered from Lamon's vagina, anus and thigh provided her a time range for the DNA’s deposit: “zero to 24 hours” before police collection.

Daniel Gammie, the criminalist who filed the original report in the case in 1985, noted that the deposit happened at least 24 hours before collection, but he adjusted his opinion to match Hong’s stance during the trial.

In altering his opinion, Gammie stated, he would “be very cautious about making a statement like” the one he made in 1985.

For her part, Hong credited the presence of variables in the low-quantity semen deposit as the reason for the “zero to 24 hours” position instead of starting the clock at least 24 hours before collection.

“There is just a number of variables that we can’t control or that we don’t know about, so that you really can’t make [the at least 24 hours] determination,” she testified.

Haskins, who won the case but lost his push for a death-penalty punishment, asked her if her analysis “basically tells us” that the semen deposit occurred “between zero and 24 hours prior to the time it was collected—is that correct?"

Hong replied, “Yes.”

According to Sanders, who made a forceful case that another suspect is the killer, Hong’s testimony “fit perfectly for the prosecution—offering a window of time in which Johnson’s sexual contact with the victim [who had multiple sex partners in the weeks before her death] could have been near the time of death.”

During his closing argument, Haskins mocked Sanders as a nutty conspiracy theorist for raising suspicions about the shifting analysis. 

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However, it only took 15 months for the flip-flop to happen in open court.

The “zero to 24 hours” crime-lab analysis didn’t fit Gundy’s needs during the 2009 trial against Lemond. He wanted a forensic scientist to testify that the low-quantity semen evidence meant “a more remote deposit,” according to court records. But the prosecutor had a problem.

As in the Johnson investigation, Gammie originally declared the semen deposit in Lemond happened at least 24 hours before collection. Having testified a year earlier that his 1985 analysis had been fundamentally wrong, he couldn’t be called as a witness. That move would give jurors impeachment evidence against the government’s case. Instead, the prosecutor summoned Hong to the witness stand, and she told Gundy what he wanted to hear.

The prosecutor asked when the semen had been deposited. Hong told jurors, who weren’t informed about either her or Gammie’s 2008 DNA testimony, that the answer was at least 24 hours before collection.

That testimony helped lay blame on Lemond by destroying any defense argument that the actual killer was Larry Herrera—the suspect identified by DNA testing as the sperm source in the victim, according to court records.

“In other words, Hong essentially turned her Johnson testimony on its head,” wrote Sanders, who credits Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy for inadvertently prompting his review of Johnson and Lemond by accusing him of committing defense misconduct against Haskins. “Suggesting that the evidence indicated a window of the time of deposit as being 24 hours before collection is wholly irreconcilable with the testimony in Johnson. . . . Which, if any, of these two versions is closer to the truth can be further analyzed in habeas litigation for Johnson and Lemond. But Hong’s failure to say the name ‘Gammie’ once in her testimony is noteworthy. She clearly had studied Gammie’s report and analysis and knew that Gammie’s testimony in Johnson and her own—in the hands of defense counsel—would have eviscerated her credibility in Lemond and all of the other cases she has touched throughout the course of her career.”

Hong's career includes receiving California statewide honors for her crime-solving forensic-science work in murder cases, serving as a past president of the California Association of Criminalists (CAC), and being the subject of a glowing 2012 Orange County Register feature.

In 2009, she authored a CAC column advocating the importance of forensic-science ethics:

"We must recognize the necessity to not only develop a plan to locate crucial evidence needed to investigate the crime, but also properly prepare the documentation needed to tell the crime scene's story to a jury many times years in the future," she wrote. "We need to examine and analyze evidence without compromising its integrity. . . . We must ensure that the methods we use are validated and proper controls are in place to guarantee the results are accurate."

But to Sanders—who uncovered the ongoing jailhouse-informant scandal that has earned national attention, the Johnson and Lemond cases are "powerful examples" of a "deeply rooted culture of devaluing due process" in Orange County.

The crime lab is a division of the Orange County Sheriff's Department, in which deputies have been caught conducting unconstitutional scams against pretrial inmates, hiding evidence, disobeying lawful court orders and committing perjury to cover up misdeeds. 

In Nov. 2015, more than three dozen legal experts and scholars called on Attorney General Loretta Lynch to launch a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into the operations of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. They argued that neither Rackauckas nor Hutchens could be trusted to act ethically. DOJ officials have acknowledged they are aware of the scandal, but haven't formally announced any action.

Efforts to reach Hong for comment were not successful; a crime-lab employee told the Weekly that she retired.

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