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Junk Science Can KIll

February 6, 2014

I’ve been reading up on the DNA testing that put Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito in prison for four years. They are free because the courts had the testing checked by an independent lab which concluded the original testing that convicted them was utter nonsense.

We’re not talking about a dispute among scientists here. We’re talking about the difference between science and believing that the moon is made of green cheese. Let me explain.

Genetic testing is pretty reliable but there is a new kind of testing called Low Copy Number (LCN) testing which is basically the same as the old testing but involves just a few cells and so is more delicate. LCN testing is controversial and many scientists say shouldn’t be used to put someone in prison.

There are some scientists who say LCN testing can be used if a series of precautions are taken. No scientist anywhere in the world (not a single one) says it’s okay to use LCN testing in court without these precautions.

Just so you know, here are the precautions that are mandatory when testing DNA from just a few cells. Suppose you are testing an alleged murder weapon for the victim’s DNA. First, the lab doing the test must never have had any of the victim’s DNA anywhere in it. Second, along with the murder weapon a control object must be collected from the same place and must be treated in exactly the same way and must test negative for the victim’s DNA (so if you take a knife from the alleged murderer’s house, you have to take a spoon as well and test that too). Third, the LCN test has to be done twice, once on half of your sample and then again to make sure your results are accurate. Fourth, the person doing the testing must not have access to the victim’s DNA profile so that it doesn’t influence the results (you can subconsciously try to make your profile match the one you know it is “supposed” to match) .

Let’s review: 1) separate lab; 2) control object; 3) double sample; 4) blind test.

Some scientists say if four out of four of these procedures are followed then LCN might be okay to use in a criminal trial. For the evidence that put two kids in jail who had no motive and no history of violence, ZERO out of four of the procedures were followed.

The Scientific Police in Italy conducted an LCN test of a knife in a lab and on machines that had tested items loaded with the victim’s DNA. For all we know, based on the records the lab has released, items with large amounts of the victim’s DNA could have been tested during the same hour as the knife. There was no control object – if there were, it would probably have tested positive. There was only one sample. Finally, the test was not done blind.

Not only that, the scientist who did the test was seen on video handling multiple pieces of evidence from the case without changing gloves each time as is required by strict international protocols.

So we have a demonstrably incompetent scientist doing a test that no geneticist on earth recognizes as valid producing evidence that was the sole cause of Amanda Knox’s conviction. The murder victim was covered with a veritable truckload of DNA from the real killer who is currently in jail. The idea of putting two additional people in jail under these circumstances is grotesque in its barbarism.

Even worse, with Knox out of jail and safe in Seattle, there was an appeal and the Italian bozos overturned the acquittal which had overturned the first conviction and produced a second conviction that is now being reviewed by Italy’s highest court which is presumably also staffed by bozos.

I’m not sure what the problem is here. It’s hard to understand how Italian officials can be so clueless. They aren’t stupid. The problem, I think, is the court doesn’t have an independent panel of experts with the power to exclude from any consideration what might be called “witch hunt science.”

A lot of smart people mix up science and magic. If one sorcerer says one thing and another sorcerer says the opposite, the response, even from a experienced judge, might be, “well, who can know the truth.” However for an expert panel of say five geneticists, many things that are controversial and confusing for a judge would be cut and dried for them.

Any five geneticists from anywhere in the world, would discount the knife DNA “evidence” in the Knox case. It would be an easy 5-0 decision. The only geneticist in the world who thinks the knife DNA is reasonable is the person who actually did the analysis. And actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if this woman knows that what she did is utter nonsense. Dr. Patrizia Stefanoni’s boss was actually hired by the prosecution as a consultant – so her job became effectively to find a DNA trace if it was humanly possible to do so and she did succeed, by literally ignoring every precaution in the book.

The bottom line: courts, including U. S. courts, need independent scientific panels with the power to block junk science from being used in the courtroom.

Knox is out of jail, but Todd Willingham, also obviously innocent, is dead, also due to junk science.

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From → Amanda Knox

One Comment
  1. I have been covering the DNA evidence in this case on my blog, and yours is a very well written and clear article.

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