DNA: It Ain’t Perfect

DNA is a very reliable science, but it does have its limitations. It also has its share of flaws. Don’t believe me? Then you should ask Jerry Bellamy, a New Jersey man who was arrested and jailed for the decades old rape and murder of 13-year-old Jane Durrua.

In 2004, prosecutors charged Bellamy with the girl’s death after a forensic scientist linked DNA evidence – semen found on the dead girl’s underwear – to him. Bellamy was already serving a prison sentence for an unrelated sexual assault and was about to be released when he was formally charged with Durrea’s murder. The charges were based solely on the DNA evidence found by the scientist.

IN 2006, state authorities realized the lab scientist had handled DNA evidence relating to another case involving Bellamy and the evidence from the Durrua case on the same day, at nearly the same time. This new development raised the possibility that the scientist could have cross-contaminated the Durrua evidence. Therefore, prosecutors had no choice but to drop the charges against Bellamy, and he was released.

Since then, further DNA testing has indicated another suspect in the murder – Robert Zarinsky, a man already serving time for the 1975 murder of Rosemary Calendriello. Bellamy had already spent two years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Robert Zarinsky – AP photo by Jennifer Brown

Testing of DNA found on Jane Durrua’s slip cleared Jeremy Bellamy of her murder.

Other cases of contaminted DNA, mislabeled evidence, and samples that were accidentally switched occur more frequently than you’d think possible. For example, a state lab in California reported that DNA found on a cigarette butt matched the DNA profile of a sexual assault victim from another case. These results could have meant that the assault victim had smoked the cigarette, but was that actually the case? No. The lab technician working the case processed the cigarette butt close to the victim’s vaginal sample. The evidence in both cases were cross-contaminated.

In 2003, a lab scientist somehow contaminated (a sneeze or cough?) a DNA sample with her own DNA profile.

In 2001, the same scientist in the 2003 case above ran a test on a suspect’s DNA and reported the man’s DNA profile didn’t match his own DNA. WHAT???

In 2002, a scientist accidentally mixed two separate samples from two separate cases in one tube.

A huge backlog of cases in our nations labs also contributes to unsolved and reoccurring crimes, such as rape. Why? Because over 400,000 evidence samples are waiting to be tested, but staff and funding shortages are preventing the cases from moving forward. The suspects in these cases remain free, on the streets, to commit additional crimes. In 2008, Los Angeles alone had a backlog of over 7,000 DNA samples waiting to be tested.

There are many more cases such as the ones I’ve mentioned which leads to one conclusion. DNA testing is not perfect. Therefore, should our courts be sentencing people to life in prison, or worse, to death, based upon a flawed system of evidence testing?

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Comparing Fingerprints: What’s The Point?

Fingerprints, simply put, are the impression of friction ridges located on the surface of the fingers. It is the duty of fingerprint examiners to compare certain characteristics of a suspect’s fingerprint, known as points of identity, or minutiae, to points on fingerprints found at the scene of a crime. This comparison can prove that the suspect had, at some point in time, been at that particular scene. A fingerprint match alone does not, however, prove the suspect committed the crime.

Basic Ridge Characteristics

Basic and composite ridge characteristics

Minutiae Minutiae
ridge ending bridge
bifurcation double bifurcation
dot trifurcation
island (short ridge) opposed biurcations
lake (enclosure) ridge crossing
hook (spur) opposed bifurcation/ridge ending

There are as many as 150 ridge characteristics (points) in the average fingerprint. So how many points must a fingerprint examiner match in order to safely say the prints are indeed those of a particular suspect? The answer is surprising. There is no standard number required. In fact, the decision as to whether or not there is a match is left entirely to the individual examiner. However, individual departments and agencies may have their own set of standards in place that requires a certain number of points be matched before making a positive identification.

Examiners make their determination based on he clarity of the print, the uniqueness of the print’s formations, and the examiner’s ability (or lack of) and experience. A less experienced examiner should match as many points as possible, whereas an examiner with many years of experience may settle on as few as a half dozen points that match.

Obviously, the more points that match the better the case for the prosecution.

The FBI maintains the IAFIS system (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System), which is a database containing the prints of 55 million subjects. Police agencies can typically expect to receive responses from the IAFIS system is as little as two hours. This is a sharp contrast to the wait time of three months of just a few years ago.

The IAFIS system is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The system is so quick that officers are able to run a check on a subject’s prints while they are in custody. In the past, officers were often forced to let suspects go only to learn later that they were wanted for crimes in other jurisdictions.

*Photos by Patti Phillips

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Castle: Ghosts

Episode 8, Ghosts, begins in a seedy, pay-by-the-hour hotel where a woman is found dead in a bathtub filled with motor oil. The show this week didn’t provide much fodder for a bad review of police procedure, which was good. But the medical examiner still insists on using some odd psychic wisdom and powers to determine cause of death and other forensic findings. Let’s dive right in and get this ME stuff out of the way, because this character makes me ill.

First of all, she was right about one thing. She’d actually have to test the substance in the tub to say for sure that it was indeed motor oil. However, it looked like motor oil, felt like motor oil, and the empty motor oil containers were nearby. Well, duh. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck!

Any other time, she’d merely dream up some wacky conclusion. Why now does she decide to test something so obvious?

While the ME is busy sucking motor oil from the tub with a turkey baster, one of Beckett’s dynamic duo sidekicks steps forward to say he’s found the empty motor oil bottles in a closet.

Why do Beckett’s two sidekicks always appear together, side by side, from nowhere?

A bathtub filled with motor oil on the upper floor of a busy hotel bothers me. It’s a little wacky logistically.

A bathtub holds approximately 60 gallons of liquid which equates to 240 individual quarts of motor oil. That’s 20 cases of the syrupy liquid (450 lbs.) that the killer, a female this week, would have had to carry to the upstairs hotel room. Then she’d have to open each bottle and sit there waiting for it to drain into the tub. This is all possible, but…

Next, Beckett asks the ME for a cause of death and she replies, “Drowning.” How in the heck could she say that without first performing an autopsy? Sure, she could guess, but that’s not what she did. She also stated the victim had a contusion on the back of her head. How did she know the poor woman didn’t die from the head trauma before being placed in the oil?

The next ME words of stupidity were about the wine glass found at the scene. She informed Becket that she’d found traces of a sleeping pill on the glass.

No way she’d know this so quickly. Besides, she’d have to have a reason to suspect the drug would be found there to order that particular testing during the tox screen. Tox screens are NOT catch-all tests.

AND, it probably wouldn’t be the ME who collected the glass. That’s the job of police.

ME’s take care of the body. Detectives/officers/crime scene techs handle everything else.

There simply had to be two writers for this week’s episode, because the ME scene compared to the rest of the show was like oil and water. Pun intended. They’re wearing me down with this ME character.

The rest of the show wasn’t as bad. The police procedures fared pretty well this week. The one thing I’d point out was when Beckett and Castle entered the true crime writer’s home after finding the door ajar. At the time they entered they believed they were entering the home of a murder suspect. Once inside they observed items that could have been potential evidence in the case. Beckett probably should have backed out and gotten a search warrant at that point. However, she could always say she thought someone was in trouble or injured since the door was ajar. But I’m not sure that would fly in court. People leave their doors open all the time.

All in all, the show was just okay this week. Will I remember anything about it? No.

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Weekend Road Trip: Linda McCabe in Paris

Linda McCabe is the past president of the Redwood branch of The California Writers Club. The branch was founded in 1909 and is proud to call Jack London one of their early members. Linda writes and maintains a fascinating blog she calls Musings from a L.O.O.N.

Paris: Gardens and Art

Paris is known for her beautiful gardens and art. Some gardens are famous and easy to spot such as the Tuileries on the grounds of the Louvre.

Then there are parks that are tucked away that can provide a sense of peace and tranquility to contrast with a major metropolitan city. This small park is on the Isle de la Cite near the Pont Neuf.

On our way to Marais we discovered the Jardin de l’Hotel de Sens.

There is beauty everywhere in Paris. You simply need to keep your eyes open. Even above doorways you can sometimes find art.

I thought the road signs had their own charm as well. I could not resist taking a photograph of the road named after the “Father of Europe.”

“Rue Charlemagne.”

Some gardens are hidden. One is within Hotel Dieu, which is the oldest hospital in Paris dating back to the 6th century. The hospital has a long history of floods and fires through the centuries. During the 19th century, it was demolished during the urban renewal program of Baron Hausmann and a new hospital was built. It still stands next door to Notre Dame Cathedrale.

To see this garden you must go through the ER doors, turn right and pass through another door, then turn left and you will find this magnificent courtyard.

Here are two other views of the gardens at Hotel Dieu.

If you walk up a small stone staircase around the courtyard you will be rewarded with seeing historical woodcuts of Hotel Dieu and Paris.

Originally Hotel Dieu was to the south and west of Notre Dame and even spanned the bridge to the Left Bank of the Seine as seen in this woodcut. The current hospital is situated to the north and west of Notre Dame.

Here’s a link to my travelogue to France.

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Friday’s Heroes: Remembering The Fallen

Officer Terry Adams, 38

Tifton Georgia Police Department

On April 22, 2009, Officer Terry Adams was answering an emergency call on his motorcycle when he was struck head on by a pickup truck. Officer Adams passed away during transport to the hospital. He leaves behind a wife and four children.

* Thanks to ODMP

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Familicide: The New Domestic Violence?

Actually, familicide is nothing new. It’s just occurring at a more rapid and alarming rate. Parents who kill their children and then turn the weapons on themselves do so for various reasons. Those reasons tend to differ among men and women.

Men are often driven to kill their loved ones because they feel as if they’ve failed to provide for their children. Woman are generally motivated by feelings of altruism, a selfless regard for the well-being of others. However, women tend to have a high failure rate of suicide, therefore, their cases are often not classified as familicide.  The women who fail at taking their own own lives are more than likely charged with murdering their children.

Another factor that drives women to kill their own children is psychosis. They actually believe they are protecting their kids from demonic possession. Death would end the child’s suffering.

With the downturn of today’s economy looming over the heads of American’s, police have seen an increase of familicide across the nation. Again, the father’s failure to provide seems to be the motivating factor.

Cases of familicide and attempted familicide:

– Sametta Heyward left her two kids in a hot car. Their bodies were discovered under the kitchen sink wrapped in trash bags.

– Chris Benoit, a professional wrestler, killed his wife and 7-year-old son, then he killed himself.

– Thomas Reilly, a New Jersey engineer, drowned his kids and then hung himself.

– California businessman Kevin Morrissey shot his wife and children and then took his own life. Morrisey left a note stating he’d committed the act because of financial stress.

Are these cases on the rise?

The number of these cases seems to rising. In fact, last week two families were found dead just miles apart. Police in the Towson, Md. area (just outside Baltimore) are investigating:

– Christopher Wood shot and killed his wife and kids and then killed himself.

– William Parente, a Maryland lawyer, and his family were found dead in a Towson, Md. hotel. It is believed to be a case of familicide.

Both families were experiencing severe financial difficulites.

The Violence Policy Center in Washington D.C. reports an average of 9-10 murder suicides each week. But familicides occur only 2-3 times in a six-month period.

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