Bridging Science and Law: A Public Defender’s Take on DNA and Justice

In this insightful interview at ISHI 34, Allison Lewis, a seasoned public defender from New York City, shares her journey and experiences in the legal field. With 18 years of dedication as a public defender, she talks about the inception and evolution of a specialized DNA unit in her office, addressing the growing complexity of DNA evidence in legal cases. Despite lacking a scientific background, Allison highlights how this has become an asset, allowing her to simplify complex scientific concepts for legal interpretation. She reflects on her motivations for pursuing a career in public defense, emphasizing the impact and importance of advocacy for all, regardless of guilt. Allison also discusses the evolving landscape of forensic science and the legal system, underscoring the need for collaboration and understanding among different professionals in the field. Her insights provide a unique perspective on the role and challenges of defense attorneys in the context of forensic evidence and the criminal justice system.




Laura: Welcome, Allison. We are so honored to have you here at ISHI 34. This is our annual video series that we do every year, and we’re excited to talk about your presentation. I understand you’ve already given it and we’d love to hear more about it, but for viewers who are new to us, why don’t we start out and talk a little bit about you and your background?


Allison: Sure. Thank you so much for doing this and having me. My name is Allison. I’m a public defender in New York City. I’ve been a public defender for 18 years. It was my first job out of law school, and to be honest, it was the only job I wanted. And every year and every day I work there, I’m still surprised that they hired me and grateful. About ten years ago, we actually created a DNA unit because the lawyers, we were seeing more DNA testing, seeing more sophisticated, you know, mixture interpretation coming up. And it’s not so easy for a public defender to dig deep on a subject when they have a hundred cases and they’re going to trial and they’ve got to do motions and research and investigation, and we’re in arraignments and we’re picking up new cases. So, the idea was that we would have some lawyers that specialize in DNA and forensics as well. We did expand to do all forensics. They could really jump in and be a resource to them and help them get to the quick, quickly. And once again, I applied. I got the job, and I’m still surprised that they hired me, but it’s a terrific position. I work with wonderful people. Um, and I actually don’t. I’m imagining your next question might be, do you have a scientific background?


Laura: Well, I’ll ask you just about anything, but why don’t you tell us about that?


Allison: I don’t. Not having a science background I thought was a mark against me for this job, but it’s actually turned out to be, I think, my greatest asset, because as I was explaining to an analyst yesterday or the day before when we were doing a tabletop talk, it’s so important to remember that other folks don’t know all of these terms, all of these acronyms, all of these concepts. And we become so familiar that we speak it like a language. So I always try to remember that. I remember what it felt like not to understand at all. In order to explain it to my attorneys so they can really understand it and appreciate it, and then communicate it in motions or to a jury or to a judge. And that’s the best part. When they come back to me, you know, they have a case and then we work together and then they come back 6 or 8 months later and they say, I have another case. And I remembered you told me this one thing. I remembered that. And I see that in this case, am I right? And I say, very good. You did wonderful.


Laura: I think that outside perspective can be incredibly valuable. I mean, it does help. Yeah, we can get very used to things that just are day to day to us. I’d love to talk about the inspiration for your career. So, you said that was the only thing you wanted to do. What led to that?


Allison: So, I didn’t go to law school straight out of college. I went and worked at a firm, and I worked as a temp, and I did some bartending and all the things. When I went back to school, I knew I wanted to do public interest. I was working in the corporate world and sort of knew that was not for me. But I didn’t know quite what that meant. So, when I went to law school, I spent three years doing pretty much everything. I actually remember sitting down with the two career advisors at my law school, one for folks that wanted to go out and be very high powered lawyers. And then the woman who helped people who wanted to do public interest, which was amazing. And she had this little sheet of paper, and she sat down and she said, check off the fields that you’re interested in. And there were a bunch, you know, juvenile rights or constitutional law, privacy, housing. And I just kept checking. I just kept checking them all. I was like, these all sound really great. And obviously there’s great need in New York City for so much, so many services. So, I ended up spending law school and jumped around to a bunch of different kinds of internships and work to get a sense of what the day was actually like. My first summer, I interned with what I can only call as a public defender institution, a lawyer at my job who is still there, who really is a tireless advocate and never treats a serious homicide or, you know, a violent felony any differently than a first arrest on a shoplifting, gives the same zealous advocacy across the board.


And working with him, I saw that job, and I realized that all of those needs actually sort of culminate to a point that’s the worst thing that somebody can go through. You can lose your housing, you can struggle with mental illness and have all these things happen. But the absolute worst is when they put you in jail. You lose your job, you lose your housing, you lose all those things and your life is decimated. And so that became the a passion of mine at that moment. And then I went and did a lot of other jobs, but never got the same sort of feeling of urgency that I felt with criminal defense. And I didn’t understand really what the public defenders did, I truly didn’t. I remember sitting down with him like my first day and I said, I’m so embarrassed. I can’t believe I’m saying this and it’s being recorded. I said, “Well, what do you do if you find out they’re guilty?” And that’s what everybody is? My mom is still asking me, right? What if they’re guilty and I didn’t realize that? Of course, the defense has to apply to every single person. Because if I’m the one saying I will only advocate if you’re not guilty, then the system won’t work. It would be me deciding who’s guilty, and I don’t know. Yeah, I remember that too. And I remember that because people ask me that question all the time at conferences or, you know, at a cocktail hour or the jurors, like that’s what the jurors are thinking. So I try to hold on to that as well.


Laura: I first of all, I love that for a couple of reasons, because I think any question your parents ask you about your job… I have many times when they ask, what do you do? What do you do again, what exactly is a good way to bring you back to you know, what it really is about, but also what you’re saying, I think, speaks to at least the perspective that I took from some of the background research that I did, where you’re looking at it as it’s not two sides, when you’re in a courtroom, you’re trying to get to the actual truth. You know what really happened? Like who? Who was responsible, right? Maybe you can speak in your own words about that.


Allison: Sure. So, I mean, you’re right, there are two sides. The prosecutor’s role is to figure out what happened, you know, to find and seek truth. And in that they must, you know, provide their case to us and be transparent. My job is to find out what happened only in terms of how I need to help my client in the situation. Right? What’s the strength of the evidence? Are there witnesses out there that contradict what the police witnesses have said? Is there evidence that actually isn’t consistent or is it all consistent? And I need to start advocating for my client to mitigate his exposure to prison, frankly. I mean, you know, at these conferences, the cases and the stories we hear about are extraordinarily tragic and heartbreaking and nobody is unmoved when you hear them. But a lot of the times, the large majority of my cases are just the side of my client. The story of my client, the human, the son, the father, is just as heartbreaking because you just… The wonderful thing about this job is that I will never give up on anyone. Right? Like it’s everyone is worthy of… I think it was Allison yesterday morning who said mercy, right? This idea that nobody is beyond redemption. I’m getting a little choked up as I think about it. I can’t believe you’re doing that to me. Oh my goodness.


Laura: I’m sorry, but I love hearing this. Yeah, it gives me hope. Yeah.


Allison: Yeah.


Laura: Yeah, I really and isn’t that true? Because nobody can predict what kind of situation people might, you know, end up in. And yeah, everybody is yes. Everybody deserves a chance at redemption. Yeah.


Allison: You know, I meant to mention in my talk yesterday and I ran out of time and there were just so many things to say. But one of the things that I would suggest as like homework or suggested reading, if anyone wants to understand really the defense is this book by Bryan Stevenson. It’s called Just Mercy, and he has an innocence case for sure that he’s talking about a wrongful conviction. I think they also made a movie out of it. So, you know, I suggest the book. It’s always better, but the movie is also great.


Laura: Books are always better, always better.


Allison: But the book really also goes into his clients that that are arguably guilty, that are that could have very well been guilty. But what that means for him and his advocacy and it’s really very good. It’s extraordinary actually.


Laura: That is a great recommendation. I love when we get those little bits of wisdom in these, because especially it goes to the ISHI audience, but also just to the larger public. So, I think it’s important for everybody to understand a little bit more of what happens here. What was your experience like so far? You know, being a defense attorney at a forensic DNA conference?


Allison: It’s wonderful. I mean, it is a little nerve wracking. The defense is often maligned and not trusted and considered to be the enemy. Maybe. But I think that does stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the system works. And I actually was at my first ISHI was, gosh, it was in 2019, I think, in Palm Springs.


Laura: Palm Springs was a fun one.


Allison: That’s beautiful. I’ll go. Yeah. So, I was there and I was with a colleague and at one of these mixers, the first, you know, the welcome reception. And we got to talking to some analysts and they were bowled over by the fact that there were defense attorneys at the conference. They just couldn’t believe it. They appreciated it. They were warm and welcoming and encouraging and happy that we were there. So, I do think there’s this hunger from analysts. And sometimes I also hear this talk, I’m sorry, at this conference hearing from folks that that say, I wish we heard from the defense, I would love to hear more from the defense and do pretrials with them and explain the results, because then we go to court and they’re not great questions. Or I could have, you know, it’s hard to deal with a question that is fundamentally misguided. You know, it’s impossible to unpack that person’s misunderstanding when you’re in front of a jury. I get that. So, I think the defense presence at these conferences is really, um, trending up and a good thing for both sides.


Laura: You know, I agree, and I think we’ve seen a theme this year in all of the interviews because really it has become a conference that where we have the forensic scientists, analysts, we have prosecutors, defense, we have FBI, we have I mean, you name it, it’s a mix. And that’s great, because then everybody really understands an analyst isn’t necessarily always prepared to testify the first time. It can be a very scary process on both sides. And so having understanding and communication beforehand is ideal. Let’s talk about a couple more themes from your presentation. I would love for people, you know, beyond the people in the room to know what you talked about.


Allison: Sure. I spoke about just, you know, as, as a lawyer, we tell a story. That’s how we communicate ideas. And I, I had noticed we have a few extraordinary results from requests that we made of our lab to do additional… It’s really not additional testing so much as it’s additional comparison or adjusting or, you know, building the hypotheses. And I thought that the stories could really speak for themselves and encourage other labs to do that more. And frankly, hopefully it’s also, in a way, congratulate and encourage my lab and let them know that we we appreciate it and we hope that it continues if it is a trend. And I think the main thing that I really wanted folks to understand too, is that the defense role is very particular. It’s not well understood, but, we really don’t make asks very readily or often or easily because it’s our constitutional obligation to the client to never harm them more. Right? And so, we would never risk a bad result or exploring something that makes it worse for them. That’s just not what we do. So, when we do ask for them, it’s a real monumental thing. And I just I think that labs should, as I said yesterday, default to yes. You know, in law there’s the presumption if you’re in if you’re in a car and there’s a gun, there’s a presumption that you possessed it. If, you know, if there’s if the self-defense is made out, there’s this, these presumptions that are where you start. And I think even just adjusting how we think, how we approach something from the beginning, can help to make it easier to say yes to these requests. So, if your default in your presumption is yes, then I think more justice will be done.


Laura: So yes, seems to be good, good advice in so many ways. Yeah. Well, over the course of your career, you know, what kind of shifts have you seen. You know, both positive and maybe more challenging?


Allison: I mean, I think that the communication like you mentioned and the, the diversity of the parties at these conferences. You know, when I first went to, I think my first conference was a DNA or forensic conference with the community, and not just the defense bar was at AAFS in Seattle in 2014, trying to date it by when I had my kids. It was before the first one, I think.


Laura: Right. That is how I do it too.


Allison: And I did just notice that the talks were very heavy handed on, even from lawyers, from a prosecutor in my jurisdiction. She would spend nine of her ten minutes talking about these horrible facts that can, like I said, are incredibly tragic and happen to people that didn’t deserve it. And it’s awful, but it’s not science. And I hope that the trend continues, that while we honor these stories and of course, we’re motivated by these stories, and analysts perhaps have their own trauma that brought them to this work, who knows? But that’s here and the work should be over here. You know, I didn’t mean to pull on heartstrings. I almost got myself choked up on my last slide. I had a slide of Innocence Project. Just clips from the internet. And I couldn’t fit them all on one page. It was. It was a lot. And so, I think we have both sides of that story that we need to remember.


Laura: And I think we’re really starting to open that communication up. I know this year we did a video series on guilt before innocence, reversing it. Yeah, a nice six series. And I don’t think we could have done that ten years ago quite in the same way and have so many participants from all sides. So, looking going forward, like, what would be the ideal way you’d like to see everyone you know work together?


Allison: I mean, I think, well, work together. I’m a little conflicted. It’s working together to, you know, for innocence projects as cases, exoneration cases especially do need the community and the IGG that were just speaking about and a lot of these tools.


Laura: Yeah. I think what you’re saying is about the appreciation and the understanding and that that really makes the difference. And that’s what we’re looking for.


Allison: And that’s why these conferences are so great because the people are all in the same room. And, you know, the idea behind the First Amendment is you go to the marketplace of ideas and you have to be exposed to people that you disagree with in order to better understand, better defend your position and to potentially be convinced by them and see their position. And it’s a wonderful principle. It doesn’t happen in society as much as it should anymore because everybody has siloed and isolated themselves. But the wonderful thing about a conference like this is everybody coming together and maybe butting heads, but in a good way and.


Laura: A good way is right. Marketplace of ideas. I love that that really says it all. I like that a lot. Anything from your talk that we haven’t covered yet that you’d like this audience to know? Or maybe something that didn’t make it into the talk that you’d, you know, a key takeaway?


Allison: I don’t think so. I will tell you, I printed out my notes because I couldn’t see them on the computer and I didn’t even look at them. And then I looked back at them after and I thought, wow, actually, I think I hit it all, I think I did it all.


Laura: I love about these presentations, because everybody is such an expert in their field and it is a conversation. I mean, you’re really listening to someone talk about what they’re passionate about and you gain a better understanding. So that just speaks to your expertise. And they’re amazing. So, I hope to watch them shortly after since I don’t get to attend. So this is a great way to learn more about it.


Allison: Great. Well, this was really fun. I appreciate you taking the time.


Laura: It’s wonderful. You’ve been to a couple of ISHIs. So, I always like to ask what’s your perception now over time and why is it attractive for you to attend this particular event and present it?


Allison: I mean, I learn a lot, but I think the real motivation is for people to see me here. And presenting is just even more of that, which is I was just so honored to be I submitted the abstract again. I didn’t think anybody would say yes. But, I think for the community to see us here, and they’re a handful across the country of folks that attend. So, I get to see my friends from Minnesota and from California and I think that that’s the most important thing to me is making sure that they see us and they see that we’re engaged and maybe correct some misconceptions.


Laura: That’s wonderful. Yes, I think I see that happening every year. It’s been very interesting to watch over a decade how things have progressed and moved forward. We’re coming up on our 35th anniversary next year, so we’ll be doing a bit of a celebration. And so, this is very speculative, so understandable if you don’t want to answer it. We’re not holding this to, you know, holding you to it. But we’re sort of asking everybody where do you see things going, you know, over the next five, ten years. Or it could even be aspirational. Where do you hope they go?


Allison: Well, I’m hoping that there’s more of a connection between what is discussed here, this sort of aspirational how testimony should be, things that are admissible and not admissible, a connection between that and actual real life in court. Right? To make sure that that that the things we’re talking about actually have an impact on the real life cases that we testify in or defend or prosecute whatever our role is that the judges, you know, I’d like to say, actually, I’d like to see more judges at these, you know, I mean, they do attend other conferences I’ve seen. But I don’t know that I’ve seen any judges here, and they’re the ones that really need to be educated.


Laura: That would be a wonderful addition. And we did have 300 entirely new people attending this year, our largest ever. And so, yes, I’d like to continue to open it up. Let’s bring in more judges, more students, more, you know, really, from top to bottom. Well thank you, Allison, I so appreciate you sharing more about what you presented with our larger audience. And it’s been a joy talking to you. I really enjoy doing these and we appreciate you taking your time out. And thank you for presenting as well.


Allison: Yeah, thank you. And thanks to ISHI for having me. And I appreciate your time. It’s fun. It’s yeah, it’s wonderful.


Laura: Thank you.