- Associated Press - Sunday, August 9, 2015

HACKENSACK, N.J. (AP) - The trial of a Wood-Ridge man accused of beating a woman to death and setting her body on fire will mark the first time that a jury in New Jersey will consider evidence in a murder case based on a “next generation” test that can analyze the DNA from just a few cells of biological material.

Key evidence that authorities say links Daniel Rochat to the crime was extracted from traces of blood - found in a kitchen sink more than a mile from where the woman was killed.

Rochat, 40, is behind bars, awaiting trial on murder, arson and a host of other charges in connection with the slaying of Barbara Vernieri, a real estate agent he had known for decades. She was killed Sept. 14, 2012, in her East Rutherford home.

Prosecutors allege Rochat bludgeoned the 70-year-old woman, doused her and the room she was in with a flammable liquid, and set her body ablaze in a bid to destroy evidence of the crime.

For the past four months, Rochat’s attorney has vigorously fought the state’s attempt to introduce the trace evidence, arguing the DNA test is unreliable and not generally accepted by the scientific community.

On Friday, a judge rejected his arguments, clearing the way for the DNA evidence to be admitted at Rochat’s trial.

“We’re very disappointed in that decision,” defense attorney Richard G. Potter told The Record (https://bit.ly/1W9U5Fv). “I think it was wrongly decided, and that’s why we’re going to appeal it.”

The DNA profiling technique is known as low copy number typing. The LCN technique is praised for its potential to significantly enhance law enforcement’s tool kit because its extreme sensitivity can potentially match a suspect to evidence as small as a few cells left behind with a fingerprint. But it also has been the focus of much debate about its reliability, both because of the small sample it relies on and the potential for contamination.

It’s also referred to as High Sensitivity DNA testing. It was developed in the United Kingdom, where it has been used in criminal prosecutions since 1999.

In this country, only one lab, run by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City, has used the test for criminal prosecutions.

DNA evidence processed by the lab using the LCN technique has been presented in more than 140 criminal cases in New York, where most but not all trial judges have permitted its use after its general acceptance by the scientific community was extensively litigated by prosecutors and defense lawyers.

Potter had wanted Superior Court Judge Susan Steele to conduct a hearing - known as a Frye hearing, derived from a 1923 case - to determine if the science and methodology for testing infinitesimal quantities of DNA is sufficiently accepted within the scientific community to allow the evidence to be presented to a jury.

But in her opinion, Steele said the state had persuasively shown through scientific articles, expert reports, and decisions by courts outside New Jersey that the test is reliable and generally accepted within the scientific community.

Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli said his investigators have turned to the New York lab for analysis of trace amounts of DNA in the past, but the Rochat case will be the first time such evidence will be presented at trial.

Referring to Steele’s decision, he said, “It’s an acknowledgment by the court that it is a recognized scientific methodology.”

Potter noted the LCN test is not used by the FBI’s DNA lab or the New Jersey State Police crime lab. It’s never been reviewed by an appellate court, he said.

Firefighters responding to a 911 call from an upstairs tenant found Vernieri’s severely burned body, her clothes soaked in a flammable liquid, on the floor in a room off the hallway. An autopsy determined that she died from blunt-force injuries to her head and that her left shinbone had been fractured. Soot in the airways of her body indicated she was still alive when set ablaze. A smoke detector in the hallway had been disabled.

Vernieri had worked for years at the real estate office of Rochat’s father, where Rochat also worked in an informal capacity. But she and the son never socialized, and Rochat had never visited her home, on Shepard Terrace, until two days before the killing, prosecutors have said. Rochat told detectives he stopped in to ask for help when his car overheated. Vernieri, however, was so troubled by Rochat’s visit that she told family members about it, prosecutors said.

Traces of blood - matched to the victim by the LCN testing - were found in the sink of an apartment on Van Winkle Street in East Rutherford. Rochat had access to the apartment because he did maintenance work for the owners, who were out of the country at the time. He presumably left the blood as he cleaned up after the slaying, prosecutors theorize.

In arguing for a hearing on the test’s acceptance, Rochat’s defense enlisted three DNA experts who disputed the reliability of LCN testing and the lab’s Forensic Statistical Tool Kit, a software program used to compare a known DNA profile to a sample with a mixture of contributors.

But Bergen County Senior Assistant Prosecutor Danielle Grootenboer argued that the courts in New York now “routinely” deny defense requests for Frye hearings on issues related to the test and the software program.

“By rallying around the defendant in this case, it appears that the opponents of LCN DNA evidence are looking longingly over the Hudson at a second bite at the apple,” she wrote in a legal brief. “Simply put, there is no need to reinvent the wheel in this case.”

Potter had maintained that the evidence tested in the case was too small to yield a reliable result, and that the science behind LCN testing was too complicated for a jury to understand.

While the optimal amount of DNA for testing is in the range of a nanogram, which is one-billionth of a gram, the samples tested in Rochat’s case were measured in picograms, which is one-trillionth of a gram, or 1,000 times smaller.

Two samples recovered from the sink contained 19 and 25 picograms of DNA, roughly equal to the DNA found in three and four cells respectively, and came from two contributors, the victim and an unknown male, according to the lab’s report and court papers.

With such small quantities of starting material and the increased number of amplification cycles used in the testing to generate millions of copies of short strands of DNA, there is a greater propensity for random errors that create inaccuracies in DNA testing, both sides agreed.

But the scientists at the New York lab have implemented “stringent interpretation protocols” to minimize the inaccuracies and have conducted extensive validation studies that demonstrated that their methods and protocols of LCN DNA analysis yielded accurate results, Grootenboer said in legal papers.

She noted that the judge in one New York case found that the LCN testing method as used by the city’s lab “has withstood the scrutiny of both external peer review in the forensic community and the critical internal validation studies which ultimately determine whether a laboratory’s testing procedures are reproducible and reliable.”

Rochat has been held in the Bergen County Jail on $3 million bail since his arrest. A new trial date has yet to be set.

He is charged with murder, felony murder, aggravated arson, attempted murder, unlawful desecration of human remains, armed robbery, hindering apprehension, false swearing and resisting arrest. If convicted, he faces life in prison.


Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), https://www.northjersey.com

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