Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 20, 2011

News Digest

Expert: DNA match in attempted murder, rape case

DNA evidence links Lionel Blanks Jr. of Santa Clara to a rape and attempted murder case that began in Palo Alto in May 2010 and involved a 29-year-old woman, a DNA expert testified at a preliminary hearing in Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Jose on Monday.

Judge Ron Del Pozzo ruled there is sufficient evidence to try Blanks, who will be arraigned on May 31, when a trial date could be set.

Blanks is accused of an attack that began with the beating, binding and blindfolding of the woman in Palo Alto sometime after 1:30 or 2 a.m. on May 22, 2010. He allegedly kidnapped the victim in her car, made death threats against her and drove her to an elementary-school field in Santa Clara, where he allegedly raped, beat and choked her.

The victim testified last Friday she only survived because she had faked her death.

Nancy Marte, a county criminologist and DNA expert, said on Monday that she did statistical analysis on 13 of the most common DNA markers in samples taken from the victim and Blanks. The chances of anyone else having the same DNA match as Blanks are greater than 1 in 300 billion, she said.

Deputy Public Defender Gilda Valeros struck hard at the county's analysis, which follows policies that have never been published or peer reviewed in any scientific publication.

"I'm not accepting any opinion that she is rendering based on an unpublished study," Valeros said.

But Marte explained that all of the genetic markers tested have been scientifically peer reviewed and have been accepted since 2000.

Blanks faces six counts that could result in life in prison if he is convicted: rape during the conviction of a kidnap, with an allegation of rape engaged in tying and binding and personally inflicting great bodily injury; sexual penetration by force; attempted murder; carjacking; robbery; and threats to commit a crime resulting in death or great bodily injury.

Palo Alto schools hire new expert on test data

The Palo Alto school district has hired a new, high-level data cruncher to analyze student performance and other testing information.

Diana Wilmot, previously coordinator of assessment and accountability for the Santa Clara County Office of Education, will come to Palo Alto to replace William Garrison, who is retiring after eight years with the district.

Wilmot will track and report on student testing data and work with teachers and principals on instructional approaches.

The research director reports on trends and comparisons in STAR, SAT and AP test scores as well as percentages of students who complete a four-year-college-prep course load.

Wilmot previously has worked for many research institutions, including Educational Testing Services.

She holds a PhD in quantitative methods and evaluation and a master's in education from the University of California at Berkeley.

Earlier in her career she taught math and statistics at Los Altos High School.

"I'm excited to join such a distinguished education community and look forward to working with the incredible professionals at PAUSD to help make a positive difference for our students," Wilmot said.

Commission stops work around heritage oak

A meeting with San Mateo County left the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission reviewing options for sparing a 65-foot-tall heritage oak tree known as "Granny."

The centuries-old tree sits in the middle of a site in unincorporated Menlo Park designated for a planned water pipeline meant to carry water from the Hetch Hetchy, part of a $4.6 billion seismic improvement project.

For now, the agency has ensconced the tree within an "avoidance area" at 827 15th Ave., and directed its contractor, Mountain Cascade, to stop work within that boundary.

Ed Harrington, commission general manager, told the county in a letter Wednesday (May 18) that he personally promised the zone around the tree would, in fact, be avoided until June 6 at the earliest. That gives the agency enough time to review the arborist report and evaluate the cost of alternatives to removing the tree, he said.

Commission spokeswoman Maureen Barry described the meeting with the county as "very cordial." At issue was whether the agency would be subject to the county's heritage tree ordinance. The commission is claiming immunity as a public agency.

The neighbors agreed to meet with agency representatives but still want at least two weeks' notice before the tree is brought down, according to Mary Ann Mullen, who organized the campaign to save "Granny."

They continue to pursue a temporary restraining order, Mullen said.

— Sandy Brundage

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