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A New Way to Reform the Judicial System

By Douglas Starr | The New Yorker | March 31, 2015

Last year, the district attorney’s office in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, blew a case. The chairman of the county’s Republican Party, Robert J. Kerns, had been accused of rape by a woman who worked at his law firm. The woman said that Kerns had offered her a ride after an alcohol-fuelled office party. Along the way, she said, he gave her wine and raped her in his Mercedes, and then again in her home. Hospital reports showed bruising consistent with a sexual assault, and DNA on the woman’s underwear was consistent with Kerns’s profile. A key piece of evidence was a urine test apparently showing the presence of Zolpidem, commonly known as Ambien. Prosecutors secured a grand-jury indictment on more than a dozen criminal counts, including rape and aggravated indecent assault. Afterward, they held a press conference.

Several months later, a toxicologist hired by Kerns’s defense took a closer look at the lab report. Although the word “Zolpidem” appeared, what the document indicated was that the test had detected “less than” five nanograms per milliliter, which in this case was zero. Kerns’s lawyer got in touch with the prosecuting attorneys, who were horrified to realize that they had misinterpreted the findings—a rookie mistake.

“It was a huge embarrassment,” Risa Ferman, Montgomery County’s district attorney, told me. She and her staff had plenty of evidence that Kerns had committed a sexual assault, but, because the drugging was written into the indictment, they had to drop charges and refer the case to the Commonwealth’s Attorney General’s office. A newspaper called the incident a “fiasco.” Continue reading »