Supreme Court Hears Rooney’s Request For New Trial

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(Host) A lawyer for convicted murderer Brian Rooney told the Vermont Supreme Court today that Rooney should receive a new trial. 

Rooney was convicted in the 2006 murder of 21 year old University of Vermont student Michelle Gardner-Quinn. 

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(In courtroom) "The honorable the Supreme Court…"

(Zind) The court heard arguments in the Rooney case at its annual session held at the Vermont Law School. 

There are two claims in Rooney’s appeal.  One is that the crime for which he was prosecuted is addressed in two different Vermont murder statutes and that he should have been convicted under the one carrying the lesser penalty. 

But the majority of the discussion between the lawyers and the justices concerned Rooney’s claim that the state forensics lab’s procedures raise doubts about the accuracy of the DNA samples used to convict him.

Appearing on Rooney’s behalf, Deputy Public Defender Anna Saxman said the samples were very small.  And she said internal studies about the procedures used by the forensics lab would have raised questions about contamination and the accuracy of tests done on samples that small, if those studies had been disclosed during the trial. 

Justice Brian Burgess questioned Saxman about why Rooney’s defense attorney hadn’t pressed prosecutors to produce the studies during the trial.

(Burgess) "So if he know about these validation studies, it just seems natural to want to see these and to see what they say and let the defense make up its mind whether they’re exculpatory or not."

(Saxman) I agree, your honor."

(Burgess) "So why didn’t he ask for them?"

(Saxman) "Because they weren’t produced, number one…"

(Burgess) Well they were disclosed, though."

(Zind)  With the Attorney General and the Public Safety Commissioner watching from the front row, the state argued that sample size isn’t the most important factor in obtaining accurate results from a DNA sample.  Justice John Dooley questioned Assistant Attorney General David Tartter on that point.

(Dooley) "But the defense has a different argument which is that small sample sizes increases risk of contamination which is a kind of different consideration from the one you’re arguing."

(Tartter) "That was an argument I heard today for the first time. Its got nothing to do with this and the results here do not suggest contamination in any way."

(Zind)  Tartter denied that the internal studies of the Vermont Forensic Laboratory’s procedures cast any doubt on the outcome of the DNA tests in the Rooney case.

Rooney was convicted largely on the DNA evidence and is serving a life sentence for Gardner-Quinn’s murder.

The Supreme Court will rule on Rooney’s appeal later this year.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind in South Royalton.




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