- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2005

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — The state’s second-highest court has upheld the use of mitochondrial DNA evidence, which critics say is less reliable than DNA obtained from the nuclei of cells.

The Court of Special Appeals ruled that a trial judge did not abuse his discretion in allowing mitochondrial DNA evidence to be used against Russell W. Wagner, who was convicted of murder.

The ruling issued Monday upheld Wagner’s life sentences for the murders of Daniel B. Davis, 84, and Mr. Davis’ 80-year-old wife, Wilda.

The two died of stab wounds at their Hagerstown home on Valentine’s Day 1994.

Mitochondrial DNA is obtained from the mitochondria, known as the powerhouse of the cell because it is involved in the processing of blood sugar into energy.

The DNA in the mitochondria is distinct from the DNA in the nucleus of the cell because it is descended only from the mother. What is more important to criminal investigations is that mitochondrial DNA can be obtained from dead cells, such as hair and fingernails.

In Wagner’s case, FBI scientists obtained mitochondrial DNA from a single strand of hair found on a glove recovered from a neighbor’s back porch.

Defense attorneys argued that the processing of this type of DNA is particularly susceptible to laboratory contamination.

The appeals court concluded that Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III did not abuse his discretion by allowing the evidence to be admitted.

The appeals court ruled that the use of mitochondrial DNA meets the standard of scientific reliability established by the Frye-Reed test described by the Court of Appeals in 1978 in Frye v. State.

Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, whose office was the first to use mitochondrial DNA evidence in Maryland in the 1997 trial of Scotland E. Williams, said courts nationwide have ruled in favor of using mitochondrial DNA.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” he said.

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