Experts debate problems in Kerns' rape case

Robert J. Kerns, former GOP chairman.
Robert J. Kerns, former GOP chairman.
Posted: March 20, 2014

NORRISTOWN Experts weighed in Tuesday on who should interpret lab results in criminal investigations after the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office conceded Monday that it bungled a high-profile rape case.

The executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association said investigators, due to limited resources, often must make arrests based on their own interpretations of lab findings.

But the former head of Virginia's crime labs said investigators should always - before an arrest - confirm lab results with the report's author or an expert.

Montgomery County's rape case against Robert J. Kerns, the former county Republican Party chairman, collapsed after District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman acknowledged her staff misread results from the alleged victim's urine test. Kerns had been accused of drugging and sexually assaulting an employee of his law firm. The prosecution's case rested largely on a faulty initial interpretation by a nurse and a county detective that they thought showed traces of the sleep drug Ambien in the alleged victim's urine.

No one disputes a mistake was made.

"A person who is qualified to make the interpretation should have been consulted beforehand," said Pete Marone, a retired director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science Crime Laboratory.

"Quite often that's what you see happening. People assume what it is without going back to the original person who wrote the report," Marone said. "Hell's bells, you're just asking for trouble."

However, Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said prosecutors often carry a heavy load of cases built, at least in part, on a lab report.

"Due to the large number of reports and limited resources available it is necessary for investigators and/or prosecutors to review and interpret lab reports as a case is developed," Long wrote in an e-mail. Then, he said, experts are brought in to explain results during a trial.

Ferman said she assumed experts had verified her office's reading of the report.

"Every 'I' should have been dotted, and every 'T' should have been crossed," she said.

While her office typically consults with toxicologists in preparation for a trial, she said, procedures are not always consistent.

"As a practical matter, we don't have the resources to double-check outside lab reports," she said.

Monday's developments were the talk of county lawyers on Tuesday.

"It's an unbelievable mistake," said a defense lawyer who asked not to be named. "And it's by good people, too."

Still, observers noted that Ferman, by asking state Attorney General Kathleen Kane to determine whether charges against Kerns should be refiled, was looking out for the alleged victim.

"It does appear the Montgomery County district attorney does truly believe the woman," said Pennsylvania victim advocate Jennifer Storms.

Theodore Simon, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer who defended Amanda Knox, said Ferman's office should be "applauded" for dropping the case.

"Whenever a prosecuting agency realizes that the underlying basis no longer exists, it's absolutely proper, appropriate, responsible, and professional to withdraw the charges," Simon said.


cdavis@phillynews.com

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