Rock Harmon pioneered forensic DNA evidence. He served on the OJ Simpson prosecution team, where DNA evidence first came to the general public. Rock is a decorated Vietnam combat veteran. He is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. Rock spent his entire legal career at the Alameda County District Attorneys Office.
A transcript of this podcast is available.
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Rock Harmon – Podcast Transcript
Louis Goodman: Rock Harmon. Welcome to love they lawyer. It's great to have you.
Rock Harmon: It's good to be here.
Louis Goodman: Where are you from originally?
Rock Harmon: Upper West side.
Louis Goodman: I lived on the upper West side for a while. Of course I grew up in New Jersey, which doesn't have quite the same cachet
Rock Harmon: We’ve talked about that. I grew up on West 76th.
Louis Goodman: Right. And I think I lived on West 83rd and Broadway.
Rock Harmon: Yeah. When I was born, we lived on 84th between Columbus and central park West. Then we moved to 76, the same block on Columbus with Central Park West
Louis Goodman: Where was Xavier high school,
Rock Harmon: 30 West 16th street between check the sixth Avenue.
Louis Goodman: So how did you get there when you were in high school?
Rock Harmon: The I N D local from either seventy second by the Dakota or 79th by the museum of natural history, I took it to 59th street, changed to the express, used to see Lew Alcindor, getting off his train to go to high school.
Louis Goodman: How was your experience at Xavier? Did you enjoy going to school there?
Rock Harmon: So again, you know, great. You know, the school has changed. Like a lot of schools have changed, but yeah, there were people that drew from all over the New York area. So in that sense, it was different because probably where you went to high school, you saw your friends after school.
We had kids coming in from Connecticut and New Jersey and all the boroughs. So, unless you we're involved in some activity, you didn't see them on the weekends or things like that. So it was in that sense, it was very different. It's a good school. Great group of guys. I'm still in close contact with many of them
Louis Goodman: You graduated from there in 1963. Is that right?
Rock Harmon: Yes.
Louis Goodman: How did you happen to decide to go to the United States Naval Academy for college?
Rock Harmon: You know, I honestly, I can't tell you exactly why. I know when I was a kid, my parents used to take us to West Point, so picnics and things, and that was pretty impressive place.
Louis Goodman: We used to do family trips up to West point too.
Rock Harmon: Then, you know, later on there was a local Sergeant in the NYP Dean, the 20th precinct, which was right where we used to hang out at 68th and Amsterdam and, and he was in the national guard. And, he took us up there on trips and those trips were different because he had a lot of dealings with them up there.
So we got to meet a lot of cadets. You know, this was probably late grammar school. And, you know, when you're exposed to those kinds of things, those are pretty impressive experiences. So when it came time to go to college, if you went to Xavier, you either went to a Catholic college or the academies, there were very few other options.
That's just the way it was back then. It's very different these days.
Louis Goodman: And how did you decide on Annapolis?
Rock Harmon: I like blue better than green or Brown and the ocean and the ocean.
Louis Goodman: So, I mean, New York, obviously surrounded by water, but you always sort of had an attraction to a water sailing, that sort of thing?
Rock Harmon: Yeah. Yeah. My parents would take us to Jones Beach in the summertime. We'd go out there Saturdays or Sundays all the time.
Louis Goodman: Let me ask you a couple of questions about. Your experience at the United States Naval Academy. The first year there is called your plebe year?
Rock Harmon: I remembered the date cause it's still a big date for us, June 26th. So two weeks after high school off you go, and that's the end of your life as you knew it.
Louis Goodman: And during plebe summer, it's, it's very physical. Is that correct? Sort of like basic training,
Rock Harmon: You know, constant constantly going.
Louis Goodman: Have you ever heard of a book called Reef Points?
Rock Harmon: Yes, I have. How do you know about that?
Louis Goodman: Why don't you tell us what Reef Points is about?
Rock Harmon: Reef Points has everything you better know as a plebe. And, and I probably can't even remember more than half a percent of it now, but it's just full of all sorts of information.
That you need to start memorizing and can carry it with you all the time. And upperclassmen are often will stop you and ask you questions about things, you know, and most of it is nonsensical. No, I shouldn't say most of it. A lot of it is nonsensical stuff.
Louis Goodman: What's a, what's a come around?
Rock Harmon: Come around is when an upperclassman has some reason to test you. and, and there are times during the day, usually before meals, where they tell you come around today at lunch or tonight, and, and you report to that person's room. And they will, it'll either be mental challenges or physical challenges or you have to come back in a certain uniform.
Report back. So it's it, you know, it goes on, see those things don't happen until the brigade comes back at the end of plebe summer. That's one of those dreaded moments when the brigade is back at the end of summer and usually before Labor Day. And that's when they come around stuff starts with upperclassmen and you usually eat in your, your own comfort.
Louis Goodman: Now you mentioned mealtimes now three times a year. They serve something called cannonballs.
Rock Harmon: What,
Louis Goodman: What, what are cannonballs?
Rock Harmon: Wow. Is their big cream filled like rum flavor. I'll call it a dessert for want of a better thing, but you know, there, there's also it come into play in this whole process, because if you can eat a certain number of cannonballs, something way out of my comfort zone, then you could get all this stuff relaxed.
For the rest of the year. So, and very few people ever tried because the stuff was that it was deadly to eat if you want to just work for dessert. But if you tried to eat it a whole tray full and, and some guys did and failed, I don't pity my family memory, but I don't remember anybody ever succeeding.
And the challenge, the guys made good efforts at it, but it certainly wasn't something I could do.
Rock Harmon: Let me just, we had, my whole class will never admit it publicly, but privately we had a plebe year that was a little easier than, than many classes. I mean we had a secret weapon. We had a Heisman trophy winning quarterback and in my plebe year named Roger Staubach.
And, and the way it would work is if the football team won on Saturday, you would have a relaxation or the rest of the week until the next game and Navy winning. I think nine games won, lost two. And so for the, at least for the first semester, we, we, it wasn't as stringent as it was. So those poor guys went through seasons when they only won two or three games.
Louis Goodman: After you graduated from the Naval Academy, what, what, what rank did you leave there with?
Rock Harmon: Well, the lowest commission officer, ensign, equivalent of a second Lieutenant in the army air force and Marines.
Louis Goodman: Where were you assigned?
Rock Harmon: My, my first assignment was to, ship an old World War II destroyer.
It was actually off the coast of Vietnam when I graduated. So they sent me to a couple of schools in a, not a vacation spot, called Brunswick, Georgia, in, in South Georgia, along the coast. And so the ship came back late in the winter. So I finally got to the ship in November,
Louis Goodman: When you were, at the Academy, during the summers, there's the summer cruises, which are kind of like an internship, had, was there anything about that experience that helped you out in your initial experiences and Anson.
Rock Harmon: Just the sea life. Cause we were at sea a lot, you know, after the plebe year, they call it youngster cruise, which is that second year. And we, we all boarded different ships. Either on the East coast or the West coast, I was on the East coast and we onboarded and then went to Northern Europe.
And in Europe it was actually very cold, went to Norway, Belgium, France, England, and, and it was a large group of ships. So when it came time for Liberty, some would go to one place, say Copenhagen, really good experiences, but also you heard the rigors of ship life, you know, there's no days off or anything.
You work constant rotation; you have your watch standings and then you have whatever your job is for itself.
Louis Goodman: What was your job?
Rock Harmon: You mean after I graduate? Yeah. Okay. I had; I was lucky I had what I think is the best job. I was the CIC officer, which is combat information center.
It's kind of a nerve center for the ship. You see the pilot radar and things like that. Usually right adjacent to the bridge. So, we know exactly what the ship was doing. If you're down in the engine room, you just know when they want to go faster or slower, not really with what's going on around you.
So, yeah, it was a great job.
Louis Goodman: Rock you went to Vietnam and, you served there as a commander of a Swift boat. And I happened to know that you were decorated for your service. I also know that you were wounded in the service and received a purple heart. and I'm wondering if you'd be willing to tell us a little bit about that experience.
Rock Harmon: The whole Vietnam experience. Sure. it was, you know, I, I have to go back to the ships for a little bit. I realized after being on the ship for about almost two years, that that was not going to be my future. And so I, I decided. I volunteered to go to Vietnam. And, so by then it was 1969.
I started my training in the Bay area up in Vallejo, but, and I was fortunate that by the time I got to Vietnam, most of the people or most of my crew consisted of guys that had been through training with me. A swift boat: It's a 50-foot aluminum patrol boat with a lot of heavy arm in there are not army that harms, there's one officer charge and five enlisted men.
I was 24. I was older than everybody except for, We had a senior guy was going to be a career who might have been through my training with, so we were together.
Most of the time we had, we had patrol areas because we are gone. The patrols are two, three, four days, in different rivers throughout Vietnam. we would get assignments at night. Somebody's being attacked, fired your mortar. They give us coordinates. Sometimes we would go in with Navy seals and cover for them.
Cause we had more fire power than their boats did. Sometimes it was Vietnamese troops. They were wanting to go in and find an operation and clean out place. We would sweep them in and then cover for them and then pick them up after they were done.
When we didn't have missions like stop and search boats, just, you know, in part a little bit like being a cop is part of like being the support team or guys that are actually needed to go in there and do something. we had Navy aircraft that were always ready to protect us in the form of these, Huey gunships.
That that was the Navy version. That affects way was that. Wherever Swift boats and the smaller river patrol boats operated. The aircraft and were ready to help us whenever.
The best experience that I can describe is, I would run into my classmates from the Naval Academy who I didn't know, were there wherever I went. I say over that, without a doubt, you totally go into a place and they're on assault craft. So we'd go to a briefing on an aircraft carrier and in there and your classmates. So in that sense, it's a pretty cool expectancy. but, you know, it it's, it's one of those things that changes you actually for the better. I think it changed me for the better.
Louis Goodman: I'd like to segue from that to, you're going to law school, you went to law school at the university of San Francisco USF, correct?
Rock Harmon: Right.
Louis Goodman: And unlike many of. Your classmates, I would imagine who went directly from college to law school. You would have this interim experience of serving with the United States Navy in Vietnam.
And I'm wondering how that felt when. You went back to school after having an experience of enormous consequence and responsibility?
Rock Harmon: Well, you know, me, Lou, I was pretty excited. and that I, that, that, that makes me remember a bunch of things because one of the first days, I see this guy named Steve. He's one of my new classmates. Well, Steve had new hardware. He lost his leg on Swift boats in Vietnam. Soon after I got there, I had no idea he was going to be in my class. So it was pretty great to see one of my Swift boat buddies then probably that day or the next day. I see another Vietnam guy, who went on to be a judge up in Shasta County. Roger was a Navy intelligence officer in the areas that we operate in. So, so, so. But I'll tell you that there were some, I had to make some adjustments because you know, we talked about my background. I remember in USF, everybody wanted to vote about everything.
It's like not, it was beginning of my indoctrination into California life. If you're complaining about it. and so I remember we had, you know, there was a way to get your locker. So you had to sign up by a certain time. Well, the guys that didn't get up complained about it. So they wanted to get a petition to cause the whole process.
And I thought, wow, this, this why this can be like, you know, the other thing was USF is a Catholic school and there's nothing really Catholic about the law school. Well, I didn't realize there was a crucifix high up on the wall behind the teachers. And then the next thing I see is a petition to remove the crucifix from the wall because it offended some non-Catholic people.
And I thought, wow, I know I'm going to have to be able to fit it very well. Here would have been just kind of where everything bothers you and you, and you get to vote about it. Now where, where are we now? You know, 46 years later. We're still complaining and arguing.
Louis Goodman: It's not exactly. Yes, sir. No, sir. No excuse, sir. I'll find out, sir.
Rock Harmon: Yeah. And honestly, those things so seem so trivial to me compared to what I'd been doing with my life. I never forgot
Louis Goodman: After USF. What was your first legal job?
Rock Harmon: The only legal job I ever had was the Alameda County DA's office.
Louis Goodman: Well, that's one thing that, you and I have in common, we're both alumni, of the Alameda County district attorney's office. You served there a lot longer than I did. And you were there, before I got there and after I left, how did you happen to get into that job?
Rock Harmon: Great question. Do you know the answer to that?
Louis Goodman: I don't.
Rock Harmon: Well, my classmates, Joanne Parilli at USF, and a guy named Mike Walsh, had already arranged going to the DA’s Office.
Joanne was an East Bay person. Somehow she had made the connection. Mike was an East Bay person. So they had had summer intern jobs here and I didn’t. And I have something else you need to know. My older brother is a West point graduate. he was then a prosecutor in the Manhattan DA's office. So seemed like as a natural progression from, you know, going from the service to criminal law. That's the way it seemed to me.
Everybody said, you know, you have to know somebody to get a job there. And I thought, well, I don't know anybody. What am I getting out? Am I going to do this? And one day I was talking to my brother in the DA's office. Somehow he had this boss and then he was in the homicide Bureau, the DA's office.
His boss said, Hey, Lowell Jensen is a personal professional longtime friend of mine. My brother's boss wrote a letter of recommendation, and I had never met the guy. Just saying I hired his brother. His brother said you ought to hire him. That's that changed my history.
Louis Goodman: Well you had a really, storied career in the Alameda County district attorney's office. And I'm wondering if you could give us a brief history of that career up until the time that you started and how you started getting into the DNA prosecutions.
Rock Harmon: Let me give you a little flavor. When I was in law school. There were some crazy things going on and crimes in the country. There was the zebra killers and they were, I was in San Francisco and people were getting shot, just walking down the street. And it just seemed like. You know, maybe my military experience, again, maybe I craved the excitement a little bit too much, but it just seemed like with all this craziness being a prosecutor would be a great spot. Something that I would, I would fit in very well with. So, so, you know, when you start, I didn't do any of the clerkship programs. So my offer was right after I got out of law school to start after I took the bar exam.
And then we got the bar results Thanksgiving, and then I got sworn in, which was a few weeks.
Rock Harmon: I started in Oakland muni for a short time. They had put me in juvenile. Juvenile was just changing to allow peers an active role, but I spent the better part of my first two, two and a half years in Berkeley, which is a great place small office while I was there. And Emily Harris had gotten arrested for kidnapping Patty Hearst.
To go back before that, you've got a time period when Ramiro and Little were prosecuted for shooting, the Oakland schools, chief, Marcus Foster. Then it's time to go up to superior court where you start handling felony trials.
And you know, you remember Lou, when you're young, you just get whatever comes your way. And most cases are plea bargain or it's time we go to trial. So I just found out, worked my way through, through those assignments. after a little bit of that, that was at a time when we started having specialty teams, I was on the drug prosecution team.
Jeff Horner was my boss and rolling. Then I think my next stint was in career criminal and Bill McGinnis now an appellate court judge was my boss there. That's when I started doing some serious cases, picked up a murder case while I was there that fit the career criminal criteria. And it just kept going from there.
Louis Goodman: How did you get into the DNA work?
Rock Harmon: Sure by, by about the mid-eighties, I was assigned a triple murder case that, it involved the LSD manufacturing business. And the business side of it for the most part. A man and his sister, his wife were murdered in their home and, and a key bit of evidence was some blood drops from blood smear on a piece of toilet paper.
In the context of the crime scene, obviously were from the killer. the case had already been tried; the murders happened in 79. I think, the guy had been convicted once, the case was reversed on appeal for not having any visibility on the blood type. And so when it came back to me that the challenge was to have an admissibility.
I would say it's about 1985. So, we had an admissibility issue. So, and I did a lot of work because it actually beginning to be a national legal problem. And so to my surprise, unbeknownst to me when there was, when we got the trial court decision and even more so when it was affirmed on appeal, it became the legal precedent for the admissibility of what we were doing.
And as I say, it became a big deal to my surprise. People started inviting me to, to talk about it at, at scientific meetings. Cause I seem to be the only prosecutor in the country that had gotten that interested in it by then, it's going to be taboo to guess what, they're starting to talk about DNA.
Louis Goodman: Well, not only did you, not only did you get invited to talk about it, but ultimately you were invited to be part of the prosecution team in the OJ Simpson case, specifically because of your DNA background. You know, the OJ case is undoubtedly one of the most famous cases in the 20th century. I'm wondering if you could share a little bit of your experience with that trial?
Rock Harmon: Sure. yeah, it was funny. I just did a four-hour interview last week for a documentary. I've never, never sat down and talked about that much for any reason. You know, I think the first thing is to try to compare how Alameda County, the way we do things and the way they do things in LA.
Louis Goodman: Can you be specific about that? I mean, I'm not, I'm not in any way trying to relitigate the OJ case, but I'm wanting to get what rock Harman's view of the situation was?
Rock Harmon: Sure. I'm turning the clock back to the first day that I walked into the courtroom there.
And I always stunned by how small it was, you know, it's smaller than our own, virtually any of our courtrooms. And I was struck by that for cause by then, that was November. The other thing I was struck with was the, the formality of, of everything, but even more so everybody just talked and talked and things, things should normally have taken five minutes retake two or three hours.
Louis Goodman: In court, on the record?
Rock Harmon: in court, on the record. And, and, you know, I, I just remember at one point there was some esoteric issue that came up concerning Judge Ito, you know, and his wife who's with LAPD and they had to assign this issue to be heard by another judge. And I just remember watching it, I was at court that day. And my friend from San Diego, Woody Clark was saying, what he realized is that if I was the judge we'd be home already
That was the most dynamic thing. You know, it was, it was a very formal atmosphere. if I was going to serve on a jury, I'd be wearing shorts and a tee shirt, because I'd want to be comfortable. These people were dressed up all the time.
Louis Goodman: I remember that. I remember that.
Rock Harmon: Really, there were, there were always celebrity in attendance, you know, watching the trial.
So it was really, it was a very weird, it was a weird experience. Not that I don't like weird experiences, but it,
Louis Goodman: yeah,
Rock Harmon: yeah. That might not my cup of tea.
Louis Goodman: What did you really like about practicing law?
Rock Harmon: Well, you know, unlike you, I was only ever a prosecutor. Okay. But I, but I think, I I'm sure you'll, you'll agree with this contrary to some of the stuff that you see in places. If you're a prosecutor, you don't have to do anything that you don't believe. Right. It is, it's not like you need to drum up business, there's plenty there. And if there are, if there are doubts, then that's the end of it.
Louis Goodman: When you left the Navy, and you decided to start. to go to law school and to practice law. I'm sure you had some expectations about that. How does, did your experience actually being a prosecutor and actually being in court meet or differ from your expectations about it?
Rock Harmon: Probably it was probably better.
Louis Goodman: well, do you think that the system is basically fair or not fair?
Rock Harmon: It's very, it's very fair. I think so. Look how the DNA issue has developed. So, you know, and we have a great degree of attention paid to forensic science in general, not just DNA it's should also be helping us get to the truth
Louis Goodman: You have had, you have a family and, I'm wondering if you'd tell us just a little bit about your family.
Rock Harmon: I met my wife when she was a prospective juror. Really did you know,
Louis Goodman: I've met Kathy a number of times, but I didn't know that she was a prospective juror.
Rock Harmon: She said it was my shoes. Yeah. So now we've been married for 33 years. I son, Rocky is, he has a nice job, but he also recently has become, army national guard Blackhawk Pilot. So needless to say my military experience, I'm very proud of that. My son, Tim, lives with us. He's autistic, the coolest guy in the world. probably the best thing about this dynamic is I get to be with him every day, all day.
Louis Goodman: He loves the water too. Doesn't he?
Rock Harmon: And going to the beach. Yeah. Well, we've already done our beach walk. We'll go out there later today.
Louis Goodman: If there was one thing in the world legal world or. Otherwise that you could change. What do you think that might be?
Rock Harmon: How about this De- politicize the Supreme court.
Louis Goodman: Rock Harmon. You've had a storied career. You've done so many great things in your life. I want to thank you so much for coming on Love Thy Lawyer. It's been a really interesting conversation. I've known you for many years, but I learned a lot talking to you just now. So thank you very much for coming on and I hope to see you soon.
Rock Harmon: My pleasure as well.