Even for the Twilight Zone of American medicine the case was bizarre. It was 20 years ago this week that Louisiana’s “Trial of the Century” was just revving into high gear. A man was about to be convicted for trying to murder his recent ex-girlfriend. The man was a well-known local doctor. The victim was a cheerful nurse. And the murder weapon was a syringe of HIV-infected blood, drawn from a very sick patient under the doctor’s care.
The physician, Doctor Richard J. Schmidt, now sits in a cage, 18 years into a 50-year prison term for his jaw-dropping crime. Surely, his attorneys argued that the evidence was faulty and the nurse was lying about the injection. But his conviction was all but sealed, based as it was on the new science of DNA genetic tracing. For the evidence would prove that the HIV used in the attack, could only have come from one of the doctor’s patients.
And the story that you might think could happen only on a soap opera? Well, it goes like this:
Schmidt, age 48 at the time, had shown up at his former girlfriend’s house on the night of August
4, 1994, and gave nurse Janice Trahan, age 32, what he promised was a vitamin B-12 injection. Although she didn’t want him to, he’d done it many times before and so she didn’t really resist all that much. But 6 months later, when she tested positive for HIV, she knew the only way she could have contracted the disease was the late night injection. There simply was no other explanation.
DNA tracing was new at the time, and both the defense and the prosecution enlisted scientists to debate the commonality of the two HIV strains: nurse Trahan’s and the terminally ill patient’s. A match between the DNA samples would prove the doctor had committed the crime.
The case – The State of Louisiana vs Richard J, Schmidt – was the first time DNA evolutionary analysis, which is called phylo-genetics, was ever admitted into evidence in an American criminal court.
|“The big challenge was making this understandable to a jury.” (Prosecutor Mike Harson)|
Scientists for the prosecution walked the jury through what is referred to as “evolutionary trees” – showing how genes evolve. The nurse’s gene sequences were “embedded” within the patient’s sequences – proving that this strain of HIV virus could only have come from that patient, and no other person. And nurse Trahan had never been anywhere near that particular patient.
“The jury could clearly see that the victim’s pattern of sequences were derived from the patient’s sequences,” one scientist explained.
The jury believed the prosecution’s scientist and convicted Schmidt of Second Degree Attempted Murder. The defense appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court and then to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the appeal.
Nurse Janice Trahan survived her ordeal. She married a gentleman named Jerry Allen.
Here’s another look: