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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 17, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 17
Science in the Courtroom!

Maryland judges take a crash course from School of Medicine profs

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

From the DNA profiling of a murder suspect to brain scans presented in head-injury cases, the use of medical-based evidence has exploded in the nation's courts in recent years. In an effort to better prepare judges for cases involving advanced science and medical issues, the School of Medicine in conjunction with the Maryland Judiciary will host a three-day workshop for judges this week featuring some of Johns Hopkins' most renowned researchers.

The workshop, a program of the Advanced Science and Technology Adjudication Resource Center, will focus on topics in molecular biology, genetics, stem cell research and neuroimaging. From Jan. 19 to 21, more than a dozen School of Medicine faculty will hold a series of didactic lectures in the Tilghman Auditorium and laboratory tours for the 23 participating judges.

Chi Dang, vice dean for research at the School of Medicine and a catalyst for the workshop, said that he began to meet last spring with several state judges who expressed an interest in keeping up with the latest in medical developments and breakthroughs in order to make well-informed decisions in cases dealing with clinical information.

Most of the judges, Dang said, will come into the workshop with a rudimentary knowledge of some of the topics. He said the program should help the judges be able to cut through "junk science" and ask the right questions in court.

"What they face in the courtroom is experts testifying on both sides of the same topic, coming at it from different angles," he said. "The judges want to understand the validity of their arguments and be able to judge themselves. That is where this stems from. It's also a desire for a continuing education on their part, to get out of their circle of knowledge. We hope the workshop will be both enjoyable and deliver a wealth of practical information."

The workshop at Johns Hopkins is the second formal ASTAR session to train the 21 circuit court judges and two appellate judges recruited throughout the state to become "science and technology resource judges" for Maryland. These judges, who attended a workshop in Annapolis in October, are receiving training in advanced bioscience, biomedical and biotechnology issues and in related adjudication/mediation skills.

Through the training, the judges will be able to apply what they learn in their own courtrooms and also be a resource, within ethical constraints, to colleagues dealing with novel and complex scientific evidence. The education the judges receive will not make them experts on any of the issues but rather better adjudicators by supplying them with an enhanced scientific background.

Formed in 2004, ASTAR is a consortium run by the Maryland and Ohio judiciaries. It grew out of a decade-long effort by the Einstein Institute for Science, Health and the Courts to raise judicial consciousness about the impact of the human genome project on the courts system.

The first resource judge "class" will graduate in December 2006. By 2010, ASTAR hopes to certify at least 700 resource judges across the United States and in jurisdictions internationally. Maryland will serve as a resource for judge preparation for other jurisdictions nationally and internationally.

The subjects included in the upcoming workshop will be presented at an introductory college level, Dang said. Some specific topics to be covered are a "Primer on Molecular Biology and Proteomics," "Genetic Testing," "Bioethics Primer and Policy Overview" and "Spinal Cord Injury." The workshop will also feature a talk on hematopoietic stem cells by Curt Civin, professor of oncology and immunology; and a presentation on neuroimaging related to Alzheimer's, dementia and competence by Susan Resnick, a researcher with the National Institute on Aging and a frequent collaborator with Psychiatric Neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins.

Other speakers will be James Potter, who leads the molecular biology and genetics section; John Gearhart and Linzhao Cheng, for the stem cell section; Dean Wong and Peter Van Zijl, for neuroimaging; and Debra Matthews, an ethicist who will be involved in multiple sections.

"We identified topics that we felt would have some utility in the courts system," Dang said. "We thought, Let's start out with molecular biology and present the most current thinking and the tools used. The judges themselves requested information on neuroimaging and neuroscience, so we added that to the program."

Dang said the lectures would be supplemented with a laboratory component so that the judges, for example, could see firsthand the culturing and study of stem cells and their derivatives. In addition, the participants will break up into smaller groups to discuss the topics learned during the day and hypothetical cases.

"In general, we wanted to keep the program as simple as possible, but not too simple. These are highly intellectual people, and it will be a challenge for all of the participating faculty to present their expertise in a new and different way," he said. "We're very excited to host this, and the faculty have been very enthusiastic."


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