Friday, October 22, 2010

The American Bar Association and DNA electronic data files

Part 24 in the Knox/Sollecito case

It is sometimes claimed that the defense teams of Ms. Knox and Mr. Sollecito failed to show up for the DNA forensic testing in this case. Therefore, they do not know what went on and do not have cause to complain about the testing methods or lack of disclosure. This argument is false on a number of fronts. Ms. Knox’s stepfather Chris Mellas said that the defense was given only a few hours of notification, yet Rome is a considerable drive from Perugia (in addition to the defense having other responsibilities). This argument also ignores the fact that several of the experts from the defense only came aboard long after the testing was over. It is absurd to contend that they should be denied free access to the data. However, another problem with this argument is that it assumes that observing the testing is really that critical in the first place.

I posed the question of whether it would be more useful to observe the testing or to have the electronic data files to Professor Dan Krane, one of the cosigners of the open letter on the DNA forensics of this case. He responded:

“Having the electronic data for review is enormously important. Having the opportunity to witness the testing of samples is of marginal utility at best. Reviews of the underlying data for DNA tests often reveals alternative interpretations of the evidence samples, especially in circumstances were small amounts of DNA are involved and it is difficult to distinguish between signal, noise, and technical artifacts. Observing testing rarely provides any more insights than what should be possible from a review of contemporaneous notes that should be part of a lab's case file. Witnessing testing is far from a cure-all. Problems such as contamination of samples can easily arise before a sample arrives in a laboratory yet could not be detected by an expert observing the testing process itself.”

The subject of the electronic data files has been a major theme of this blog’s coverage of the Knox/Sollecito case. Every expert whom I have contacted has spoken in support of full release, and some private DNA forensic companies even have a standard form for the defense to fill out to obtain them. Another benefit of full release of all case files is that serious clerical errors are occasionally found and corrected.

In addition to forensic experts, legal experts within the United States support complete disclosure of all pertinent information, including but not limited to the electronic data files. Nothing close to full disclosure happened in this case. Bob Graham wrote, “It has also emerged that the prosecution has failed to deliver to the defence all the paperwork and documentation related to the forensic testing.” He reported on the prosecution’s response: “Deputy prosecutor Manuela Comodi brushed off the request for all forensic documentation and added: ‘They have everything they need. That is enough.’”

The American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section Standards on DNA evidence discusses disclosure in section 4.1:
(a) The prosecutor should be required, within a specified and reasonable time prior to trial, to make available to the defense the following information and material relating to DNA evidence:
(iii) the laboratory case file and case notes;
(iv) a curriculum vitae for each testifying expert and for each person involved in the testing;
(viii) all raw electronic data produced during testing;
(ix) reports of laboratory contamination and other laboratory problems affecting testing procedures or results relevant to the evaluation of the procedures and test results obtained in the case and corrective actions taken in response; and

Obviously the Italian courts are not bound by the ABA’s guidelines. However, the ABA guidelines are additional documentation, as if any were required, that release of the electronic data files is a near-universal norm in most nations. Ms. Comodi indicating that she has the right to decide what documentation is enough is remarkable given the unanimity of opinion on the usefulness of full disclosure among DNA forensic experts.