Presiding Judge David Dolan completes science and technology training

Monday, February 15, 2010
David Dolan, presiding judge of the 33rd Judicial Circuit, sits behind the bench in the Scott County Circuit Court room in Benton. Earlier this month Dolan received the Advanced Science and Technology Adjudication Resource award from Missouri Supreme Court Judge Zel Fischer, making Dolan the first and only Southeast Missouri judge to have completed the program. (Photo by Leonna Heuring, Standard Democrat)

BENTON, Mo. -- David Dolan, presiding judge of Scott and Mississippi counties, is well aware of technology's ever-changing role in the courtroom.

The 33rd Circuit judge recalled a cold case from Butler County he presided over a couple years ago.

"There was a case in which a girl was murdered in 1992, and when the military was sending a lot of the National Guard to Iraq and Afghanistan, they did genetics testing on all of their soldiers," Dolan said. The reason was in case of a fatality, they could match the DNA with what they recovered.

"One [soldier[']s] DNA matched a DNA sample in the cold case," he said. "They did some further research in that and charged the man in the National Guard. That trial was all based on DNA."

So when the Missouri Supreme Court sought judges to participate in Advanced Science and Technology Adjudication Resource training, Dolan jumped at the opportunity.

"The education about DNA comes in handy all the time, and we see lot of that in criminal cases," Dolan said.

The Advanced Science and Technology Adjudication Resource, or ASTAR, program includes taking multiple court-related science and technology classes. Of the judges who applied, Dolan was selected for the program, which includes a two-year regimen of 120 classroom hours of coursework.

"There were a lot of people who applied, and I thought it was a pretty neat deal," Dolan said.

Over the past two years, Dolan attended three weeklong training sessions, the first in Columbia and the other two in Bethesda, Md.

"The first class was an introduction to forensics and scientific-based evidence, such as bite marks and blood spatters -- the things you see every day if you watch 'CSI,'" Dolan said.

The other two courses were held at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, where Dolan learned about advanced genetic technologies along with genetics and addictive disorders. Judges can choose second and third areas to be studied, he said.

"I picked the genetics [course] because we deal with that in court and a lot with DNA, and I wanted to have a good understanding of that," Dolan said. "I chose genetics and addiction because a lot of things I deal with are substance abuse and how it affects a person and the outcomes."

ASTAR judges are trained in scientific and technological topics, including neuroscience evidence, advanced genetic technologies, computer forensics, cyber crime, DNA science and advanced science technologies.

"There was homework, and at the conclusion of training, I had to prepare a project, which was basically a book, and complete various projects assigned," Dolan said about the program.

The best part of the program, Dolan said, was seeing and meeting leading authorities in all the areas studied, such as the director of FBI labs. Visiting the actual laboratories at the National Institute of Health where research is conducted was also a highlight, he said.

Upon his completion of the program, the ASTAR board of directors named Dolan as an ASTAR fellow. On Feb. 4, Missouri Supreme Court Judge Zel Fischer honored Dolan with the ASTAR award during a ceremony at the Scott County Court House in Benton. Dolan became the first and only ASTAR-certified judge in the region.

"The ASTAR training assists judges in differentiating between real science and junk science," Fischer said. "This assures evidentiary fitness in all trials involving complex or novel scientific information."

Dolan is one of 19 judges who will receive this award this year.

ASTAR judges like Dolan and Fischer have agreed to take assignment of cases involving complex science and technology issues as well as help plan and develop educational programs for other judges. They also serve as consultants to non-ASTAR judges concerning various scientific topics that arise in court proceedings.

"This training will not make judges experts in these fields, but it will allow judges to be more sensitive to the nuances of complex scientific issues and help them to better perform judicial duties as it relates to admissibility of evidence," Fischer said.

Meanwhile, Dolan's technological learning experiences will continue because the program requires ASTAR judges to complete at least one training a year. Dolan said he welcomes the educational opportunities.

"It teaches us how to ask the questions to differentiate somebody who wants to sell the jury an idea that can't be supported," Dolan said. "The judge is the gatekeeper for evidence that comes in for a jury. If we can make sure evidence that comes in has a legitimate basis, then a jury can make a good decision."

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