Scholarly look: Judge pens a sequel to book on forensics


By Tom Kirvan

Legal News


Admittedly, Donald Shelton says his latest book was not written with The New York Times best-seller list in mind.

Chief Judge of the Washtenaw County Trial Court, Shelton had a different audience in view when he set out to write, “Forensic Science Evidence: Can the Law Keep Up with Science?”

“It offers a more in depth analysis of the impact of forensic science evidence on criminal cases,” said Shelton, a University of Michigan Law School grad and an adjunct professor at Eastern Michigan University. “It was written from an academic standpoint, relying on the results of various case studies and how they relate to the admissibility of forensic science evidence at trial.”

It was only a year earlier that Shelton, who earned his Ph.D. in 2010, authored his first book, “Forensic Science in Court: Challenges in the Twenty-First Century.” Much of the research for the first book, Shelton indicated, was conducted as part of his doctoral dissertation at the Grant Sawyer Center for Justice Studies at the University of Nevada at Reno.

His 2011 book was spiced with various case studies, including the first in which DNA analysis was used to exonerate a wrongfully convicted defendant, Kirk Bloodsworth, a Maryland man who served nearly nine years in prison for a 1984 murder that he didn’t commit. Shelton also stepped back in time to shed light on the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932, while delving into a “cold case” that hit closer to home.

That case study involved the 2004 trial of Gary Leiterman, a 62-year-old man linked to the 1969 slaying of Jane Mixer, a first year student at U-M Law School. For years, many believed that the murder was the work of John Norman Collins, the serial killer who terrorized the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti areas in the late ‘60s with a series of coed slayings. State Police detectives, working in a “cold case” unit, uncovered DNA evidence that tied Lieterman, a former nurse, to the crime.

In his latest book, Shelton takes a different approach to the scientific topic, which he wrote “has been moving rapidly as courts, legislatures, scientists, police and academics have all been responding to the continuing spate of exonerations in wrongful convictions that were based on forensic science evidence and to the 2009 findings for the congressionally commissioned National Academy of Sciences Report.” The book, said Shelton, “synthesizes the original research with those recent developments and responses.”

“It is safe to say that the law has not kept pace with technology,” said Shelton, who explored several facets of the highly publicized Casey Anthony murder trial in Chapter 14 of his book. “The question remains how the law should respond to the advances in technology. Right now, there is a clash between technology and the Constitution.”

In the introduction to his second book, Shelton said that “advanced technology” presents a “new variety of pretrial issues in the criminal justice system,” particularly as they relate to DNA evidence.

“In a review of existing case law, this book addressed the constitutional questions posed by the development of extremely large DNA databases, including Fourth or Fifth Amendment search or incrimination issues that are presented as a result of the methods used to collect such data,” Shelton wrote. “It also addresses the extent to which these databases lead to the adoption or application of new statutes of limitation.”

According to Shelton, the book also examines “how new technology, particularly DNA, poses significant post-conviction issues for the criminal justice system. These issues include whether and which convicts will be allowed access to DNA or other technologies that had not been discovered, or were not available, at the time of their trial.” The question of “how the judicial desire for finality weighs against the judicial struggle for truth and certainty” also is explored, Shelton indicated.

A former four-term mayor in Saline, Shelton began his career in public service as a trial attorney with Judge Advocate General’s Corps with the U.S. Army in Germary from 1970-73 followed by a year of litigation work at the Pentagon. He has served as a regent at Eastern Michigan University and was chair of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) from 1983-85, later serving on the board of the National Association of Regional Councils. For his efforts in promoting economic development in his
hometown of Saline, the city council named an industrial park in Shelton’s honor.

His work in the Army followed law school at U-M and was a result of his ROTC involvement at Western Michigan University, from which he graduated in 1966. He entered private practice in 1974 with an Ann Arbor firm, later forming his own trial practice with a colleague. Over a 12-year period, Shelton gained statewide acclaim for his trial talents, winning a number of high-profile cases including a lawsuit against the maker of the swine flu vaccine.

And now, as a prolific legal writer and dedicated student of forensic science, Shelton may well have a third book in his future.

“It probably only seems right to go for a trilogy,” he said with a wink.

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