Category Archives: DNA

Thousands of cases compromised due to faulty forensic analysis

In recent months, faulty forensic analysis has been exposed in several labs across the country. The failure of a handful of lab analysts to correctly perform forensic analysis has compromised thousands of cases. In each situation the failures are different, but they expose a lack of oversight of analyst performance in the affected labs. The following are several of the most serious failures:

Annie Dookhan

A Massachusetts chemist was accused of faking test results at the state lab and tampering with drug evidence while she tested suspected controlled substances in criminal cases. Authorities declared that Dookhan tested more than 60,000 samples involving 34,000 defendants during her nine years at the Department of Public Health lab. Over 200 convicted defendants have been released from custody while their cases are being reviewed due to Dookhan’s involvement, according to this article. One of the red flags that lead to Dookhan’s misconduct being detected was the fact that she was highly efficient at her job; she was handling an astounding number of samples compared to an average chemist. Investigators allege that Dookhan was able to accelerate her work by “dry labbing” or reporting results for analyses that she did not actually perform. Dookhan has been indicted on 27 charges, including 17 counts of obstruction of justice, eight counts of tampering with evidence, perjury and falsely testifying that she held a degree from a college or university.

Sonja Farak

Another Massachusetts chemist that worked in the state crime lab in Amherst was arrested in January and charged with evidence tampering and possession of controlled substances from the lab, according to this article. The Boston Globe reported that Farak was discovered when her supervisors were making a routine check of tested substances and found that certain substances tested by Farak had been replaced with counterfeit substances. Attorney General Martha Coakley said that both Farak and Dookhan had begun their career at the Hinton lab in Jamaica Plain. Unlike in Dookhan’s case, supervisors noticed that Farak had had a drop in her productivity. Authorities have stated said that Farak’s misconduct was quickly detected by her supervisors, limiting the scope of its impact.

Jonathan Salvador

A forensic scientist who worked as a controlled substances analyst at the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) was suspended when it was discovered that he issued a fraudulent report about a batch of pills, according to this post in the Grits for Breakfast blog. The report was issued without testing the pills and instead, substituted data from another sample. The DPS characterized Salvador’s work as deficient prior to this incident. Case supervisors were aware of Salvador’s poor performance and knew that he appeared not to understand the science of the work he was assigned. However, his performance was tolerated and he would often volunteer for unwanted tasks in the lab. In its internal investigation, the DPS found several additional cases where Salvador misreported results. According to Grits for Breakfast “hundreds of convicted defendants may end up having their cases overturned, either freeing them from prison or ending their probation terms.” It was reported that hundreds of samples tested by Salvador during his six years at the DPS were being retested.

Iowa analyst fired over mishandling of fingerprint evidence

A state police crime lab analyst in Iowa was fired in January due to errors in reports related to fingerprint analysis, according to this article. The lab reviewed the analyst’s 2012 cases and found at least nine cases contained errors where the analyst had incorrectly classified fingerprint evidence as unusable. The analyst’s errors were discovered in a routine internal review of cases. The investigation of the analyst’s casework continues. The analyst had been employed by the lab for sixteen years.

Mishandling of DNA Evidence in Rape Cases

The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office is reviewing over 800 cases worked by a lab technician who resigned in 2011. According to this New York Times article, reviewers have found so far that the technician failed to detect biological evidence in 26 cases when in fact existed. Additionally, in 55 cases, the lab technician failed to upload evidence from crime scenes into the state’s DNA database. The mishandling of DNA evidence led sex-crime investigators to not have available evidence that was could have been used to develop cases against rape suspects.  Supervisors also discovered sixteen pieces of evidence that had been placed in the wrong rape kits. The majority of the misplaced items were swabs sealed in paper envelopes.  This mixing of items from different cases raises concerns about cross-contamination and whether other lab protocols were ignored.

Additional cases of lab analyst misconduct are detailed in this NACDL News Release.

In sum, it is important for the attorneys to be aware of the risks of not reviewing the lab reports, including the underlying data, in all of their cases. Although the majority of labs endeavor to monitor the work of individual analysts through case reviews, the cases above indicate that supervision cannot completely deter deficient performance by individual analysts.

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Developing Analyses of Biological Evidence: Predicting Eye Color, Determining the Source of Bodily Fluids, and Locating Trace Evidence Within Guns

Several studies reported in the January 2013 Issue of Forensic Science International: Genetics are of interest for future developments in forensic evidence.

Research is being done on predicting eye color, hair color, and skin color from DNA. Currently, 37 gene sequences (SNPs or single nucleotide polymorphisms) have been identified as playing a role in these traits, and, of these, six have previously been used for predicting eye color. The current study tested additional gene sequences, beyond the previously used six SNPs, in order to test the ability to keep the cost of the test in balance with any gains in predictive value and reliability. It is important to note that these tests assign likelihoods of particular eye colors of the source person and do not provide an absolute determination of that eye color. Such tests may be used in the future to help develop possible suspect profiles.

Another type of genetic material, mRNA (messenger RNA, the “template” copy of DNA coding used for assembling specific proteins within a cell), has been found useful in determining the source of biological fluids. A study of mRNA markers identified specific markers for blood, saliva, semen, and vaginal secretions. The ability to identify the tissue source of a DNA profile would have important forensic uses because currently it is not possible to determine whether the DNA profile developed from a particular item of evidence comes from, for example, a blood droplet or from skin cells previously left on the surface of that item of evidence.

Finally, a study examined the firearms used in 20 cases of homicide or suicide in which there was a close-contact shot fired. The inside of the barrels of the guns were sterilely swabbed from the front of the weapon (making sure to avoid contact with the muzzle) in each case and also swabbed from the rear of the weapon in 16 of the cases. Usable biologic material for DNA analysis was found in 17 of the guns. Furthermore, after the initial samples were collected, each gun was fired one additional time, and usable genetic material was still found in 14 of those guns. Not only may testing of genetic material from within gun barrels be used in crime scene investigation in the future, but parameters may be developed for specific gun types such that, if biological evidence is found within the barrel of a gun, investigators will be able to determine if the firearm likely was fired from within a certain distance from the victim’s body.

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History of DNA Analysis Timeline – Available Online

A DNA analysis timeline is now available on the IDS Forensic Resources website.  The timeline traces the development of forensic DNA analysis and its use by the NC State Crime Lab.  It seeks to identify what technologies were available during a particular time period.  It is a helpful tool for attorneys working on older cases or post conviction cases who need to know what techniques were being used during the time period when evidence in their case was tested.

You can access the timeline here.

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The ENCODE project, the Fourth Amendment, and Haskill v. Harris

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, heard oral arguments on whether DNA fingerprinting violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure on September 19.

Plaintiffs-Appellants in Haskell v. Harris argue that collection of DNA at arrest violates their privacy interests because DNA contains not only CODIS markers that help in forensic identification by distinguishing one individual from the other, but also contain additional genetic information which plays a role in cell behavior.  This revelation is supported by the ENCODE Project, a nine-year, world-wide, federally-sponsored project which has determined that the once thought “junk” DNA actually contains intimate information such as an individual’s susceptibility to disease and physical traits such as height.  For this reason, opponents of DNA fingerprinting argue that the forensic use of DNA implicates a cognizable privacy interest because, while a DNA profile contains identifying information, it also contains much more intimate information that is sensitive and private to the individual.

You can read more here. A video of the arguments is posted here.

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“Forensics on Trial” program on NOVA

NOVA (PBS) aired a program called “Forensics on Trial” on October 17, 2012, examining the crisis facing crime labs in the U.S which lack central oversight, employ few scientific standards, and have poor regulation of examiners. The program investigates how the use of fingerprint, bite mark, ballistics, toolmark, and hair analysis evidence has led to wrongful convictions. The program will examine the 2004 Madrid bombing case in which a so-called fingerprint match was used to arrest an innocent man. The fingerprint was later matched to another suspect.  The program will also discuss how mishandling of forensic evidence impacts the criminal justice system, from wrongful convictions to the O.J. Simpson trial.  You can read about the details of the program here.

More information is also available on the NOVA website where the program can be viewed online.

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The “Birthday Problem”

Defense attorneys interested in learning more about DNA statistics might find the following articles interesting because the “birthday problem” is analogous to looking for partial matches in a DNA database.  The birthday problem is a classic puzzle that asks  if you had a room full of people, how many people would you need in the room to make the odds of two people having the same birthday at least 50-50. Surprisingly, the answer is just 23.

In the “birthday problem,” when you do not designate a specific birthdate, you open up the opportunity for many pairs to be made from a much smaller sampling of people than if you specified a specific birthday.  The same applies in with DNA when searching a DNA database for any set of matching loci, rather than looking to match a specific set of loci to another distinct set of loci.

This NY Times post is part a 6-part series entitled “Me, Myself and Math” and does a great job of explaining the birthday problem. For folks wanting more in-depth information about how the birthday problem is useful for understanding trawling of DNA databases for partial matches, take a look at this article by David H. Kaye.

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Free at Last! Willie Grimes Exonerated by 3-Judge Panel

A 3-judge panel found Willie Grimes innocent after thirty-minutes of deliberation on Friday.  Grimes had been sentenced to life in prison in 1987 after being convicted of two counts of first degree rape and one count of second degree kidnapping.  He was paroled in May of this year after serving twenty-four years in prison.

Grimes’s case was heard in April by the Innocence Inquiry Commission, which unanimously agreed that enough evidence existed to refer his case to the 3-judge panel.  The rape kit and hairs found at the scene had been lost and were unable to be utilized in exonerating Grimes.  However, a fingerprint on a banana, which the victim had claimed her attacker may have touched, was analyzed and confirmed as belonging to someone other than Grimes. Grimes was represented by attorneys Chris Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, and Robert Campbell of Hickory.

You can read more here, here, or here.

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NIJ Has Made Available New Forensic Technical Reports

The National Institute of Justice has published several reports on novel techniques that are being investigated in order to improve forensic analysis. Take a look at the reports below to learn about some of the latest techniques that are being developed and to get a forecast of what techniques you may see coming soon to a forensic lab near you!

Application of Machine Learning to Toolmarks: Statistically Based Methods for Impression Pattern Comparisons (pdf, 99 pages)

Researchers created a database of 3D striation and impression patterns on Glock fired cartridge cases, screwdriver and chisel striation patterns. They attempted to objectively associate the toolmarks with the tools that created them using principal component analysis, canonical variate analysis, and support vector machine methodology. Researchers were able to estimate an error rate for toolmark identification using these techniques and a confidence level was assigned. Researchers suggest that this methodology is a useful means of gauging the quality of a toolmark “match.”

Application of Raman Spectroscopy for an Easy-to-Use, on-Field, Rapid, Nondestructive, Confirmatory Identification of Body Fluids (pdf, 80 pages)

Research indicates that new nondestructive, confirmatory testing could identify bodily fluids, including dried fluids, with a near 100% accuracy rate using a Raman microscope equipped with advanced statistics for rapid mapping of pure bodily fluids. The research further proposes that mixed samples can be identified if the samples are not completely mixed. This nondestructive testing, if adopted in the future, could help in the preservation of crucial DNA evidence. It also offers a heightened level of confidence in the results obtained due to its confirmatory nature and level of accuracy.

Establishing the Quantitative Basis for Sufficiency Thresholds and Metrics for Friction Ridge Pattern Detail and the Foundation for a Standard (pdf, 53 pages)

Motivated by both the Daubert ruling and the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: a Path Forward (2009), researchers from multiple disciplines collaborated to develop a scientific foundation for fingerprint image quality, with a focus on latent prints.  Researchers followed an experimental approach and then performed statistical validation of their results. Their research yielded several noteworthy results, most salient being detection of unique features that can assist fingerprint examiners in drawing statistical likelihoods of a given feature. This project bolsters claims that existing methods of analysis are more of an art than a science and therefore more susceptible to human error.

Filling a Critical Need by Establishing a Fully Functioning, CODIS Dedicated Laboratory (pdf, 101 pages)

The state of Wyoming requires maintenance of a database of offender samples which historically have been processed via outsourcing to private agencies.  Through funding from both the NIJ and Wyoming State legislature, Wyoming has established their own CODIS lab to process offender samples for entry into CODIS. Currently, samples processed through the lab pass through to CODIS at a 95% success rate. Through creation of the state-run lab, sample processing time has been cut from more than two years to less than sixty days.

Implementation of a DNA Triage and Analysis System Dedicated to Increasing the Throughput of High Volume Crimes in a Forensic Laboratory (pdf, 133 pages)

Through the efforts of both the Orange County California crime lab and the Orange County District Attorney’s office, the crime lab implemented a team-oriented approach to processing DNA from property crimes. The approach employed a highly automated DNA processing method that the crime lab anticipated would free up time from the processing of property crimes, which are extremely high in volume, to devote to dealing with violent crimes. As anticipated, the new handling method decreased the turn around time on both property and violent crimes.

Taq Mutants Engineered for Forensics (pdf, 44 pages)

Researchers used novel genetically-engineered enzymes and a new protocol for DNA analysis to attempt to reduce false negative results and improve the efficiency of DNA testing. These novel enzymes and new protocol would work better with forensic samples that contain residual blood, soil, or other substances that inhibit forensic DNA analysis. Researchers found that their technique outperformed the techniques currently used in forensic DNA analysis.

Use of Scanning Electron Microscopy/Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (SEM/EDS) Methods for the Analysis of Small Particles Adhering to Carpet Fiber Surfaces as a Means to Test Associations of Trace Evidence in a Way that is Independent of Manufactured Characteristics (pdf, 77 pages)

Typically, very small particles (VSP) are ignored by forensic science. However, researchers have made the first steps towards developing a method for collecting and analyzing VSP as part of trace evidence. Researchers have successfully collected VSP from carpet fibers and demonstrated the difference between carpet fibers themselves and the VSP adhering to them. Researchers urge that VSP can prove useful in the area of trace evidence by comparing VSP from crime scenes or suspects to any items of physical evidence.

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Evidence of a Genetic Defect May Lead to Lighter Judge-Imposed Sentencing

Both The New York Times and National Public Radio (NPR) report that a recent study suggests judges may impose lighter sentences in cases where a defendant, diagnosed as psychopathic, is genetically predisposed to violent behavior.

The study, carried about by researchers at the University of Utah and published in the journal Science, tasked 181 judges from 19 states with reading a fictional case file and sentencing the defendant. The fictional defendant, accused of beating a restaurant manager senseless with the butt of a gun, was identified in the case file as being diagnosed as a psychopath. All of the case files distributed were identical except that half of the files included expert testimony from a neurobiologist that the defendant had inherited a gene linked to violent behavior. In those files which included the neurobiologist’s testimony, judges, on average, imposed a sentence seven percent lighter than that imposed on the defendant in the file without the expert testimony.

However, experts, such as law and biological sciences professor Owen D. Jones of Vanderbilt, caution that results could differ in front of juries.  Further, evidence of a biological link to violence may be used by the prosecution to argue for harsher penalties because there is nothing to stop a defendant from being violent in the future.

But, as NPR reports, introduction of a biological basis can mean life or death for a client in a capital case because it may lessen culpability. Research by geneticist Han Brunner uncovered a link between a defect found in a gene known as MAOA (monoamine oxidase A) and the violent behavior of a number of men in a Dutch family who engaged in extremely violent behavior. Stephen Mobley, who was sentenced to death for robbing and shooting a restaurant manager later appealed his sentence on the grounds that his counsel was ineffective for failing to introduce evidence that he possessed the defective MAOA gene uncovered by Brunner and believed to be responsible for violent behavior. His death sentence was reduced to life. However, a later court overturned the ruling, finding that the brain evidence should not have been allowed.

While brain scans and other neurological evidence already is used in some cases, these studies highlight the potential for use of genetic evidence in mitigation, particularly salient in capital cases.  Vanderbilt University Pathology Laboratory Services in Tennessee performs this testing which requires only a client’s blood sample. More information can be found here, or contact Sarah Rackley to discuss this testing.

You can find the New York Times article here and the NPR article here.

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DNA for the Defense Bar

A fantastic new publication is available for criminal defense attorneys working on cases with DNA evidence. DNA for the Defense Bar was published by the National Institute of Justice in June 2012 and is available for free download here. Normally I don’t recommend printing out publications because I love trees, but this is one resource that you’ll want to print out and keep on hand when you’re working on cases with DNA evidence.

This manual was written by a group of experienced defense attorneys and DNA experts including Jack Ballantyne, Catherine Cothran, Jules Epstein, Christine Funk, Chris Plourd, Vanessa Potkin, Ron Reinstein, and Edward Ungvarsky.  Its approach to basic and advanced topics is easy to understand. The manual contains excellent examples and figures so that attorneys can visualize the concepts discussed and compare the figures in the manual to lab reports in their own cases.There are clear explanations of topics such as artifacts, interpretation of results, cold case hits and CODIS, DNA collection issues, laboratory issues, newer techniques such as mtDNA and Y-STR, and statistics. There is a glossary that attorneys can use to understand the concepts in this publication and the language used in lab reports.

In addition to explaining the science and techniques of DNA analysis, the manual offers advice on topics such as opening and closing statements, jury selection, and cross examination. This is a great reference for any attorney working on cases with DNA evidence.

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