Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Paul B. Ferrara, pioneer of DNA use, dies at 68

Paul B. Ferrara, 68, the former head of Virginia's forensic-science laboratory who helped pioneer the use of DNA as a crime-fighting tool in the U.S., died Monday.

His wife, Dale Lynn Ferrara, said Tuesday that her husband died of complications of cancer Monday morning at their home in Chesterfield County. She said funeral and other arrangements have not yet been set.

Mr. Ferrara retired at the end of 2006 after 21 years as director of the state Department of Forensic Science, where he was credited with recognizing the forensic potential of DNA and then winning the resources to exploit it.

He began his career in 1971 and held doctoral degrees from Syracuse University and the State University of New York. He was a distinguished professor of forensic science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

A high point in his career began in the mid-1980s when he and others at his lab learned about a new tool then called "genetic fingerprinting." In a 2006 interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Mr. Ferrara said they realized, "My God, we have to implement this.'"

"We just knew intuitively … that it's going to change the way police conduct investigations, collect evidence, how prosecutors and defense attorneys are going to approach their cases," he said.

In September 1987, a private New York laboratory, Lifecodes, offered to train two of Mr. Ferrara's scientists so Virginia could establish the first state DNA laboratory in the country.

Mr. Ferrara fought for roughly $300,000 from the state and, in March 1989, Virginia opened the first state DNA laboratory capable of performing DNA fingerprinting. The FBI had started its limited DNA laboratory operations just four months earlier.

That same year the state forensics laboratory also became the first to create a DNA database of previously convicted sex offenders. In 1992, the state became a pilot state for a national DNA databank.

A "cold hit," or match, from the state databank resulted in a first conviction in 1994. The laboratory's work, in addition to catching many criminals, has also cleared people wrongly convicted of crimes.

"I don't know a single person that does not think highly of Paul. That's something to say," said Peter Marone, the current director of the department.

Mr. Ferrara hired Marone as a forensic serologist in 1978. An independent agency and not a part of law enforcement, the forensic laboratory went through several iterations before becoming a department six years ago.

Marone said that in addition to his forensic-science accomplishments, Mr. Ferrara established strong working relationships with the General Assembly and with all the different gubernatorial administrations over the years.

"He never promised pie in the sky. It was always, 'You give us this — we can do that,'" Marone said.

The career of Dr. Marcella Fierro, who retired as the state medical examiner in 2008, overlapped that of Mr. Ferrara's.

"Paul made Virginia a better, safer place to live by leading and directing a laboratory whose work protected the innocent as well as convicting the guilty. I am saddened to hear the news. We had lunch a few weeks ago, and he looked so well," she said.

Fierro said Mr. Ferrara built the premier state forensic lab in the country. "It had innumerable firsts, all of which required considerable leadership when you have to persuade people to do something that has not been done before," she said.

"I used to admire him incredibly because he would get money and staff. I could try for here and hereafter and not get any," Fierro said.

"And," she said, "He's a nice guy."

Peter Neufeld, a cofounder of the Innocence Project, in New York, said of Mr. Ferrara, "He preached the gospel of DNA, both to convict and exonerate with extraordinary exuberance and the criminal justice system will be indebted for that contribution."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Ferrara's survivors include three sons, Mark S. Ferrara of Oneonta, N.Y., Paul G. Ferrara of Des Moines, Iowa, and Anthony D. Ferrara of Richmond; two brothers, Richard Ferrara of Davie, Fla., and James Ferrara of San Francisco; a sister, Mary Wyatt of The Villages, Fla.; and a grandson.

By Frank Green
Richmond Times-Dispatch

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