One night in January of 1994, a 9 year old girl was brutally raped in her mobile home in Carlin. It was a crime that frightened and angered the small community in Elko County.
Though the girl had trouble identifying her attacker, DNA evidence focused on and helped convict a family acquaintance, Troy Don Brown.
Brown maintained his innocence and appealed through the state courts, which held there had been ample evidence to convict him. Eventually the case ended up in federal court before a 3 judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a 2 to 1 decision this week they ordered the conviction overturned, giving the state 180 days to retry Brown or release him.
The decision hinged on DNA testimony given by Renee Romero, supervisor of the Washoe County Crime Lab. She testified DNA found on the girl's panties matched Brown's and she would expect such a match in only one in 3 million people in the entire population. But, she says, the prosecutor she says wasn't satisfied with that statistic and led her through a complicated mathematical journey aimed at reducing Brown's guilt to a percentage. DNA evidence is never presented in this fashion and along the way context and meaning was lost.
Romero found herself agreeing with the district attorney's math, but not in how he was applying it. She says the judge stepped in to clarify the matter, but it was the exchange between her and the prosecutor that was pulled out of the transcript and became the basis for Brown's appeal.
This week it worked. In its ruling the 3 judge panel said the end result of that tortured math was a jury decision based on persuasive, but flawed evidence. Today Romero says her tests and others that were never brought into evidence leave no doubt about the outcome.
"The DNA in that sperm on her panties is Troy Brown's," she says.
And, if it comes to that, she's prepared to take the stand again, to clear up any doubt. It may not come to that. Any decision to retry Brown would be up to the Elko County District Attorney's office and Deputy Attorney General Erik Levin, who's been handling the federal appeal. He says there's enough evidence to convict Brown even without the DNA, he hasn't given up on reversing the judicial panel's ruling. Levin says he's asking for a rehearing before the 3 judge panel or failing that before the entire 9th Circuit Court.