Monday, May 16, 2011

The Independent DNA Experts and the Electronic Data Files

Part 28 in the Knox/Sollecito case

Update, 13 June 2011

In the story “Knox appeal: DNA experts to request more time” from the AFP on 20 May 2011, Knox lawyer Carlo Dalla Vedova said “The experts asked the forensic police to hand over information essential to their report on the DNA. They still haven't received it and will therefore request a 40 days extension.” He added, “It's not the first time we've asked for the police to hand over this information,” He also said, “But they need the raw data they have asked for from the police to do so. We first asked for it in 2009 and it's still not been handed over.” This ends the debate about whether or not the forensic files were ever released to the defense during the trial of the first instance.

Judge Hellmann appointed two independent experts to review the DNA forensic evidence in Amanda Knox’s and Raffaele Sollecito’s appeal. Recently, the experts asked for more time, and reports suggested that they did not yet have access to documents the felt were necessary to carry out this task.

According to Candace Dempsey, forensic scientist under whose supervision the tests were carried out, Dr. Patrizia Stefanoni, turned aside this request. She wrote to Judge Hellman, “In reference to the request of acquisition of CD RAW DATA, one is obligated to explain that the information in the form of this file in the sequencer is never an integral part of the technical report, as far as the object being tested by the forensic geneticist, namely the DNA profile, and that it is already reported in the electropherogram printout, connected to the technical report on which all of the useful date and an evaluation of the genetic profile are reported… Finally, the request asked for by the expert consultants relative to the acquisition of the CD RAW DATA appears incomplete in so much as the name of the ‘sample file’ requested was not specified…”

To help me consider Dr. Stefanoni's refusal refusal, I have consulted with DNA forensics professionals Dan Krane and Jason Gilder of Forensic Bioinformatics, and I gratefully acknowledge their help. The continued lack of file release with respect to the DNA profiling of this case has been a recurring theme of this blog.

Her arguments against releasing further information are essentially:
(1) All of the necessary data are already in the paper printouts of the electropherograms.
(2) The request for data files is insufficiently specific.

Let us examine point (1) first. Dr. Stefanoni’s position appears to be the same as it was when Dr. Pascali was refused data, as noted in Raffaele’s appeal. Yet some of the electropherograms only provide the number of repeats, not the peak height for each peak. Peak heights are essential to evaluate peak height imbalance within a locus, which bears on the question of whether or not a sample is in the low-template range, and whether two peaks within a locus belong to the same or to two different individuals. Peak heights can also be used to quantify the severity of degradation when one compares DNA fragments of different lengths. Peak height ratios also help one to decide whether or not a small peak is a type of artifact known as a stutter. A careful examination of these small peaks is especially important in helping to judge what other DNA is present on the bra clasp besides Meredith’s and presumably Raffaele’s.

In addition, having the electronic data files allows one to calculate a run-specific limit of detection (Gilder et al., J. Forensic Science, January 2007, 52 (1), 97). This process sets a lower limit on the size of which peaks to accept, based on the amount of noise.

It can also be helpful in detecting a type of artifact known as a pull-up. There are four types of dyes used in DNA profiling, each with a different wavelength (color) of detection. Each dye is ordinarily detected in its own channel. Sometimes a large peak gives a small spurious signal because of bleeding from one channel into another (Butler, Forensic DNA Typing (2005), pp. 336-337; 384). According to Christine Funk and Dr. Simon Ford, “Pull-up can usually be identified through careful analysis of the position of peaks across the color spectrum, but there is a danger that pull-up will go unrecognized, particularly when the result it produces is consistent with what the analyst expected or wanted to find.”

Dan Krane was asked to give his opinion about the release of such files in a separate legal matter. He wrote, “I believe that a defense expert cannot competently evaluate the results of an STR DNA test without having access to the test’s underlying electronic data. In my experience, review of electronic data has often led directly to the discovery of important problems or limitations in the STR testing, or to alternative theories of the evidence, that would not have been apparent based on a review of laboratory reports or other laboratory records… In my opinion, review of the electronic data is as important as review of the laboratory’s written notes…There is no legitimate reason for a laboratory to refuse a defendant’s request to examine the electronic data.” (bolding mine) Finally, this blog has previously noted that the ABA standards explicitly call for release of the electronic data files.

Point (2) is equally difficult to comprehend. Clearly Dr. Stefanoni understands that the electronic data files are being requested, yet apparently wants specific file names. It is difficult to see how the independent scientists would know the file naming convention used in Dr. Stefanoni’s lab. Who does Dr. Stefanoni think can provide the specific file names?

Forensic Bioinformatics has a 10-point standard discovery motion, and point 6 covers files. The material should include:
(6.1) All collection files (such as injection lists and log files for an ABI 310 analysis).
(6.2) All GeneScan® files, including sample files and project files.
(6.3) All Genotyper® files, including templates/macros (see Request 5).
(6.4) All GeneMapper® files, including sample files (.fsa files) and project files (.ser files).
(6.5) If the data you are providing includes files from another case that are not pertinent to the instant case (e.g., sample files from another case included in the same run folder), then please identify those non-pertinent samples by name and laboratory code.

Clearly it is the job of the laboratory that performed the test to provide the file names.

Concluding remarks
The failure of Dr. Stefanoni’s laboratory to provide the data to the independent forensic scientists is a continuation of her refusal to provide them to the defense. There is absolutely no legitimate reason for her to do so. As Dan Krane noted, “It is a fundamental tenet of science that two reasonable experts should be able to independently arrive at the same conclusions after reviewing the same experimental data.”