Academics and Research

Quick Questions: DNA expert Phil Danielson on his involvement in Denver rape trial

Phil Danielson, center, recently served as an expert witness on DNA evidence in a high-profile Denver court case. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Phil Danielson, center, recently served as an expert witness on DNA evidence in a high-profile Denver court case. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Biology professor Phil Danielson recently served as an expert witness on DNA evidence in a high-profile Denver court case, in which defendant, Clarence Moses-EL, convicted of sexual assault in 1987, was released from prison and granted a new trial after his sentence was vacated by a Denver District Court judge. Moses-EL maintained his innocence throughout his 28 years in jail. At DU, Danielson teaches a class on science and the law, as well as a class on scientific evidence with Professor Joyce Sterling of the Sturm College of Law.

Q: What are your main research areas? 

A: In my research laboratory, I conduct research on developing new approaches to the confident identification of human body fluids that are commonly encountered in murder and/or sexual assault cases. I also conduct research aimed at improving the ability to obtain useful DNA profiles from bullet cartridges, which currently are very difficult to analyze successfully.

Q: What was your role in the Moses-EL trial? 

A: I served as an expert in forensic biology and serology. In this role I reviewed the original testing conducted by the Denver Police Department in this case and the testimony offered by the Denver Police crime laboratory analysts. After reviewing the case file, it became clear to me, as a scientist specializing in forensic testing, that the Denver police analysts had interpreted the original laboratory test results in a manner that was not scientifically supportable and may have been misleading/confusing to the jury. In fact, by modern standards, a reasonable scientist would not have reached the conclusion presented by the Denver Police analyst. Unfortunately, the Denver Police lab refused to reconsider their original conclusions and testimony in light of advances in the field or in light of the confession of [convicted rapist] L.C. Jackson. My role in the court hearing was to testify to my review of the testing performed by the Denver Crime Laboratory. My professional opinion was that a careful scientific analysis showed that the original test results actually indicated that it was far more likely that the source of the semen recovered from the rape victim was L.C. Jackson and not Moses-EL. In fact, a proper interpretation of the original test results actually indicated that Moses-EL could not have been the source of the semen found in the victim.


Q: Have you testified as an expert witness before?

A: Yes. I have testified numerous times as an expert in molecular biology, forensic biology, serology and DNA analysis in Colorado and other state courts as well as in federal court.


Q: How was this case different from previous ones you have been a part of?

A: Two things: First, this was a very high-profile case that was being handled as a post-conviction matter. As a result, the burden of proof was on the defense, so there was a much higher bar to meet than in most cases where I have testified. I felt a huge responsibility to get it right with regard to the scientific evidence in this case, because this was a case of alleged actual innocence. As Americans, we all want the justice system to be just and fair. We know that in spite of our best efforts, however, mistakes do happen that land the innocent in prison. When they do, we have a huge civic and moral responsibility to do right by those who have been wrongfully convicted. That is a lot of weight on the shoulders of everyone involved, including lawyers, judges and scientific experts.

Second, this case involved a type of non-DNA testing that has not been used in most police labs in years. This meant that I had to re-familiarize myself with these tests and the interpretation of the results. I also had to make a scientifically supported assessment of how these old tests would be interpreted nowadays. That was a lot of late-night reading.


Q: What do you think of the verdict, and were you surprised by the outcome? 

A: I was very pleased by the judge’s ruling in this case because it reflected a careful and critical analysis of the testimony and facts. I feel confident that the judge understood the issues and reached a just decision. I wasn’t surprised because I knew that the science has always been on the side of Moses-EL’s innocence. I was, however, very pleased that the court recognized this.


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