The Moth: Why I Teach – Eric Lander



ladies and gentlemen Eric Lander in January 1989 I got a phone call from scientific friend that the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island asking me if I'd come participate in the meeting but he was organizing on DNA fingerprinting and this was back in the days before DNA fingerprinting was a staple of CSI and Law & Order and in fact it was before DNA fingerprinting was actually used in the courts in the United States and he wanted to organize a meeting to get some judges and some lawyers and some scientists to see if we could anticipate what the problems might be with DNA fingerprinting so I'm a human geneticist I work on the human genome project and human genetic variation he thought it could be useful to have me around so I said sure so a couple weeks later I go down to Cold Spring Harbor Long Island for this meeting and there's the usual talks and there's some discussion and then the afternoon coffee break these two New York lawyers tall guy with bushy hair short guy with black straight hair corner me they dragged me into the side room they locked the door they take out these x-ray films and they hold them up to the window and they say what do you think so it turns out these x-ray films were evidence in a criminal case in the Bronx a woman had been stabbed to death and the police suspected the janitor when they interviewed the janitor a man named Jose Castro they noticed a spot of blood on his watch so the police took the blood from the deceased woman and the blood from the watch and sent it off to a testing laboratory to do this new DNA fingerprinting let's call that testing lab life codes because that actually is what its name was so when DNA fingerprinting is done right you get this beautiful x-ray film with these bands showing different positions in the human DNA and they differ between people you can line them up and see if they match so these x-ray films looked absolutely nothing like that I'm from Brooklyn the technical term for what they look thank you thank you as you know if you're from Brooklyn the technical term for what they look like is schmutz there were a mess there were the sort of things a first year graduate student might bring you and you'd say look don't bother trying to interpret this experiment just go do it again well you can imagine the lawyers were incredibly excited to hear me say this because they immediately said will you test the five addint to testify there out in the court I said oh I need this like a hole in the head um I I don't have time to do this I've got work to do it's Italy and so I said no look I can't possibly do that so they pressed and I resisted they pressed and I resisted and finally one of them says all right all right don't testify but would you teach us so we could do a good job now that got my Achilles heel because in addition to being a scientist I'm a teacher for 25 years I've taught the introductory biology course at MIT I love teaching and more than that I firmly believe that no matter what I do in my own scientific career the most important impact that I can ever have on the world is going to be through my student so very very very reluctantly I agreed to teach them the plan was this the judge was going to have a pre-trial hearing in the Bronx about whether this DNA evidence should be admitted into court so we take couple weeks and we talk about the basics of DNA analysis and the protocols and how they could go wrong and then look at the lab reports and see if they made sense and then when the hearings started they'd send me the transcripts and we look at the transcripts and talk each night about the transcripts and I'd suggest questions you might ask it's alright the trial starts in the bar they are the hearing starts in the Bronx first couple witnesses or academic scientists who come and describe DNA and you know fingerprinting and your basic stuff first one is actually rich Roberts a very good molecular biologist who later go on to win a Nobel Prize then it started getting interesting the lab director from life coats took the witness stand and we'd agreed on some questions to ask him and they asked the questions we started getting back answers and it got stranger and stranger I'll just tell you one aspect of this case life CODIS tested the samples to see the sex of the sources they took a probe for the Y chromosome when if you use a probe for the Y chromosome and it's a male sample you get a single band in just the right place that says this is from the Y chromosome and if it's from a female you see nothing so they tested the samples and the blood from the deceased woman nothing the blood from the watch nothing he declared a perfect match now in science we almost weep but we often like to have this thing called a positive control something that would tell you that the experiment that actually worked and they did indeed over on the right side of this x-ray film have silane labeled control and if you looked in the lane labeled controlled you saw nothing so I suggested we ask the lab director who's the control so I asked them who's the control and he said we use cervical cancer cells those people do use cervical cancer cells in molecular biology for all sorts of things it's an odd choice if you're testing sex because it's a from a female obviously but anyway two weeks later the technician who actually perform the experiments takes the witness then suggests ask him why are they using cervical cancer cells they asked him and he says cervical cancer cells we don't use cervical cancer cells we use DNA from somebody in the lab I get DNA from from my lab mate Arthur Eisenberg Arthur Eisenberg so two weeks later the lab director is back on the witness stand and I suggest they ask him if that's the name from Arthur Arthur Eisenberg what's up with his Y chromosome like why isn't there a band there that's they asked him and without missing a beat he says oh that's very interesting Arthur has an unusual genetic condition he has a short Y chromosome that's missing those sequences eventually life codes would come to testify that it wasn't actually Arthur Eisenberg at all it was a woman in the lab named Ellie Meade and the way they figured this out was they got everybody in the lab and they did DNA fingerprinting on everybody in the lab to figure out who their control had been for the DNA fingerprinting so it was pretty clear these guys were bungling this case they were clearly making up protocols in the lab and maybe they were making up things on the witness stand too I don't want to say but I had gotten completely radicalized and at this point I told the lawyers okay I'm going to testify I flew down to New York went to the Bronx to the Bronx Criminal courthouse on the Grand Concourse 160 first Street in the shadow of Yankee Stadium to testify in the courtroom of Judge Jerry shine one as an aside judge scheindlin's wife was also in New York City judge a family court judge Judith Sheindlin until she stepped down from the bench a few years later to become a judge on television where you may know her as Judge Judy but anyway I digress judge Scheindlin was having the time of his life he was bragging to all the other judges in the criminal court house Hill guys have these drug dealers and rapists and pimps I have the best scientists in the world testifying in my courtroom and he was in no rush to end this hearing so I testified for a solid day and another day and another day by the time I was done I had testified for six days in his pre-trial hearing then I called up five other scientific friends and persuaded them to come and testify – this went on for quite awhile by the middle of May the prosecutor had scheduled a vacation in the Caribbean and she asked the judge could we get opposed phone minute that delay in the hearing so I can go on my vacation of the Caribbean the judge being nice in okay fine we'll take a week off and she went off to the Caribbean as it happened I went to Cold Spring Harbor for another scientific meeting and there I met rich Roberts who had been that first prosecution expert witness I said rich did you ever actually look at the evidence and worried she said no I was testifying about DNA in general so I grabbed bridge pulled him in the back room closed the door took out copies of those x-ray films held them up and I said what do you think and he agreed it was terrible so he came up with a plan rich was going to call all the scientists who had testified for the prosecution I called all the scientists who testified for the defense we in a conference room in Manhattan and we'd all discuss the evidence together apparently this sort of thing isn't typically done in criminal cases III heard later it's never been done in criminal cases but what did I know so we met we got together we met we looked at the evidence after a day of reviewing all this the verdict amongst the scientists was unanimous the evidence really was schmutz so we wrote up a statement everybody signed their name we sent it off to the judge prosecutor gets back from the Caribbean finds out that all of our witnesses have now switched sides I thought she was going to fold there but she dutifully soldiered on for several more weeks and finally 15 weeks after the beginning of this pre-trial hearing both sides rest judge Scheindlin takes a month to write an opinion and when it comes out it says what else could it possibly say the DNA evidence is not admissible so we'd won we'd won our point it was settled it was over so what happened the janitor Jose Castro his case never went to trial while the DNA evidence was terrible it turned out there was a mountain of other evidence linking him to the murder he pled guilty and went to prison the US National Academy of Sciences very concerned by what had come out about DNA fingerprinting from the castro gaze set up a committee to recommend standards for the quality in DNA fingerprinting which in fact has worked and led to the DNA fingerprinting quality we have today life codes corporation terminally embarrassed by their performance in this case quietly went out of business me I went back to Boston to work on the Human Genome Project in my lab genome project was heating up it was an exciting time worked on it but I get phone calls I got phone calls from defense attorneys and prosecutors and judges asking you to come testify in their DNA fingerprinting cases I got a call from judge Lance Ito in the OJ Simpson case asking me to go testify in the OJ case to all of this I said no I've got my work I've got to focus on that work I just can't get involved in all this but much worse than this I got letters I got handwritten letter from an inmate in a Texas penitentiary saying I read about the Castro case will you help me I'm really innocent help me I got letters from prisons in Virginia prisons and Kansas from Attica upstate New York and there was nothing I could do I couldn't do anything I just couldn't possibly get in the truth was I couldn't tell who was really innocent so I took these letters and I put them in my bottom drawer and I felt guilty but happily the two lawyers who I taught in the Castro case they got the letters too and they didn't put them in the bottom drawer they began to investigate them and they began to find that some of these people were innocent and they started something called the Innocence Project and the Innocence Project has gone on to lead to the exoneration of nearly 300 people including 17 people on death row and it's taught us that absolutely certain eyewitness identification can be absolutely wrong so some years after that these two lawyers Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck called me up and said would I join the board of the Innocence Project this time I didn't hesitate I immediately said yes why do I teach I teach because I firmly believe that no matter what I do with my own scientific career the greatest impact I can possibly have is through my students thank you you

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