Knox/Sollecito: update on today’s court proceedings

Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito

Photo by Franco Origlia

The prediction I made at the end of my last post that today’s hearing in the appeal of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito would be “the most enlightening and important session” in the process turned out a little wide of the mark, mainly because the meat of the prosecution response to the recent DNA review in the case didn’t happen. We will have to wait until after the court’s summer recess for that, when police scientist Patrizia Stefanoni will give evidence explaining why, in spite of the criticisms in the review, the DNA analysis she undertook in relation to two key pieces of evidence in the case is reliable.

That will be the most enlightening and important session in the process. Mark my words.

Today’s hearing began with the presentation in court of a letter from Stefanoni’s boss, Piero Angeloni, taking issue with the DNA review and affirming his confidence in the work of his people. It might be said that this tells us little we didn’t expect – after all, it already seemed clear that the police were not going to put up a white flag. Apart from support for Stefanoni, though, I think the real purpose of the letter to highlight how unusual the DNA review undertaken in the case is, in the view of the police. It is unprecedented, says Angeloni, for the police to be subjected to this type of criticism in court.

I wonder if this is a foretaste of a public policy argument the prosecution may seek to hang their hat on. The authors of the review, Stefano Conti and Carla Vecchiotti, start from a position of feeling they need to trawl through academic literature in order to piece together the standards by which they feel Stefanoni should have operated. But, it might be argued, this constitutes them assuming the role of a two-person regulatory body. Even if their recommendations are sound, it is the accepted regulatory framework that matters. The courts cannot permit the police to be subjected to creative criticism that goes beyond this framework because, in that case, the streets would quickly fill with acquitted murderers.

At least, I think that’s where we may be going, and it is also something that is reflected in what Stefanoni recently said to the Observer: “We followed the guidelines of the ENFSI, theirs is just a collage of different international opinions”.

Given what is said the review though, the question that immediately raises itself is how closely the ENFSI or any other guidelines have been followed. I don’t know what the standards required would have been on the relevant date, but it is likely that Stefanoni will need to convince the court that, for example, negative control tests were appropriately carried out on the samples taken from the alleged murder weapon. Arguing that you only need to follow certain agreed standards and then going on to argue that you don’t even need to follow those may be a step too far.

Meanwhile, each side seems to have scored a point in their cross-examination of the experts regarding that alleged murder weapon, a knife recovered by police from Raffaele Sollecito’s flat. The defence were able to elicit an opinion that the blade of the knife had been subjected only to a fairly ordinary wash prior to its discovery by the police. The judges will no doubt be wondering how likely it is that Knox and Sollecito dealt with their murder weapon by giving it only a general clean.

The prosecution, for their part, secured an agreement from Carla Vecchiotti that a six-day gap between the testing of the knife and any prior testing of items containing the DNA of Meredith Kercher would be sufficient to guard against contamination. This may be very helpful to prosecutors, since their main task is to show that the theoretical risks of contamination outlined in the DNA review could not have given rise to any actual contamination.

With respect to the other piece of evidence under consideration, the clasp from Kercher’s bra, said by prosecutors to bear Sollecito’s DNA, the most important answer may turn out to be one that wasn’t given. According to one report, when asked by prosecutor Manuela Comodi how it was possible that Sollecito’s DNA on the clasp could be the result of contamination, the two experts were not able to give any clearer explanation than “anything is possible”. That answer could well turn out to be an Achilles heal for the defence case.

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19 Responses to Knox/Sollecito: update on today’s court proceedings

  1. thundering says:

    Excellent article. Clear and balanced. Thank you, Maundy.

  2. Claude says:

    Might “anything is possible” be a valid argument, though? As in “if your standards are too low, then who knows what kind of contamination you might get?

    I don’t think so myself, but isn’t it possible that the judges might think that?

    • maundy says:

      Of course, it isn’t possible to read the judges minds. But I think they will need concrete explanations of how contamination might have occurred. They’ve had a DVD presentation which shows various things at the crime scene which, it is argued, should not have happened. For example, someone was not wearing a hairnet. Whilst I can accept that this is a lapse, my question is: “does this really matter unless that person had Sollecito’s DNA in their hair?”.

      What’s missing at the moment, as far as I can see, is anything where you can say: “here is a breach of protocol and it is plain for all to see how this might have resulted in Sollecito’s DNA being transferred to the clasp (or Kercher’s DNA to the knife)”.

  3. Hi Maundy,
    I don’t agree with your premise; it is actually uncommon to know exactly how a contamination event occurred, as Dr. Donald Riley noted. Even if I did, I would still point to the existence of Raffaele’s fingerprints (therefore his DNA) on Meredith’s door as a possible route of contamination. Dr. Stefanoni’s beliefs about how often gloves should be changed are out of the mainstream. On page 38 of John Butler’s textbook “Forensic DNA Typing,” he wrote, “Use clean latex gloves for collecting each item of evidence. Gloves should be changed between handling of different items of evidence.” A technician might have carried Raffaele’s DNA from the door to the clasp when it was collected. They should have been using disposable tweezers in any case.

    • maundy says:

      Hi Chris. I’m not suggesting that the court need to be told exactly how the supposed contamination occurred, just that I think they will need some hypothesis that is slightly more specific than “anything can happen”.

      It is perhaps not be impossible that a technician might have carried Sollecito’s DNA from the door-handle (where is this supposed fingerprint documented, BTW), so maybe you have the beginnings of a neat theory there. Maybe it could also be checked out with reference to the CS video.

      But the defence can’t expect the judges to weigh up hypotheses that haven’t been put to them.

      Side note: If they should have been using tweezers, why does the book you just cited talk about the use of latex gloves when handling evidence? I did a search for “tweezer” in that book, and it came up blank.

  4. Hi Maundy,

    Perhaps fresh gloves and fresh tweezers (forceps) are equally acceptable. At Forensic Magazine in “Evidence Handling and Collection” Dick Warrington wrote, “Go about collecting evidence. I can’t say enough about avoiding cross contamination. Put on gloves, use gloves, change gloves. Do that every time you touch a piece of evidence. Likewise, use disposable tweezers, scalpels, etc. Change these each time they are used, as well.” Warrington also wrote an article for Forensic Magazine called “DNA Collection and Packaging,” that discusses gloves and tweezers. Orchid Cellmark’s guidelines state, “Use clean latex gloves for collecting each item of evidence. It is recommended the gloves be
changed between the collection of each item of evidence.”

    There exists a “cottage fingerprint map” at Injustice in Perugia under the subheading of miscellaneous downloadable files. Fr. 68 and Fr. 72 are Raffaele’s prints on Meredith’s door, and there are a couple of his prints elsewhere.

    • maundy says:

      OK, so we can agree that handling evidence without tweezers is not necessarily an offence (?).

      Disappointingly, the diagram at IIP seems to show Sollecito’s prints not on the door handle (reading back, I accept this is not what you originally claimed) but in two locations close to the hinge-side of the door. Presumably these got there during his attempt to break the door down. Fair enough, that may raise the possibility of his DNA (it would only be touch DNA) being present at those locations.

      That makes the hypothesis that someone put their gloves on, then rubbed their hands on the door for some reason (good luck, maybe), then picked up the bra clasp.

      My difficulty is that, although I have not seen V&C’s DVD, I have a hard time believing that alleged shortcomings at the scene of crime can have been of anything like the order that would make that sequence of events possible. If I’m wrong about that, then I’m wrong. But having someone on site not wearing a hairnet is of a completely different magnitude to having investigators wiping their hands indiscriminately over the crimescene just prior to bagging an exhibit.

  5. CodyJoeBibby says:

    Sollecito’s DNA was most likely on the towels taken by Rudy into the murder room and in close proximity to the bra clasp, later destroyed due to incorrect storage by police.

    • maundy says:

      That’s an interesting use of the phrase “most likely”, Cody.

      But, OK, the court does not need to arrive at a view that something is most likely, only reasonably plausible. If this theory were to be put to them, the main thing they would want to know is whether there was ever a realistic opportunity for the clasp to come into contact with one of the towels. When were they removed from the scene, for example? What does video footage tell us about their position?

      I’ve nothing against internet speculation, but the court is in a slightly better position, in that it has a greater body of evidence to refer to. Which is what it will do, so an internet theory is no good unless we have all the facts and we know that they fit.

      Who has alleged “incorrect storage”, by the way? I imagine the towels were eventually destroyed simply because they were biological waste.

      • We will never know if the DNA was on the towels or not because they were never tested.

      • maundy says:

        I agree with that. So, we make the assumption that Sollecito’s DNA might have been on them. The next thing we need to know is: how likely is it that the one of the towels and the bra-clasp came into contact with each other during the search of the flat? I wouldn’t say that’s impossible but, in my view, the court will need more than “not impossible”.

      • Why do they only need to have come into contact with the bra strap during the search of the flat? Couldn’t it have happened during the murder?

        Also, your reasoning on all of this is that the defence needs to prove contamination and specifically how it happened.

        How are they supposed to do that and what are the incentives for forensics teams to follow correct proecdures if their results are unassailable no matter how they were obtained?

  6. Hi Maundy,

    From my perspective, it is the cleanliness of the item used to handle evidence that is key, although it might be easier to remember to throw away disposable tweezers than to be continually changing gloves. I did not perceive the same degree of spatial resolution with respect to where on the door the prints were as you did. I would think that one might push the door open with two hands then handle the clasp.

    I would also point out that Sollecito probably left much DNA in the house that was not identified, such as on hand towels. The forensic police sampled many presumed blood stains, and they also sampled cigarette butts. However, they were not doing a comprehensive search for DNA. The other problem is that we have no way of knowing how, who, or when the clasp was moved between November and December. Whoever moved it was probably not a forensic police officer; therefore, he or she would have no reason to observe any strictures about how to handle evidence.

    • maundy says:

      Chris, we actually are able to limit the ways in which the clasp might have been interacted with, because we know that the building was sealed on 7th November (the last day of the initial search) and no one entered it until 18th December (when the clasp was retrieved). So any supposed DNA transfer really has to have been caused by the scientific police. There’s no cleaning lady or visit by lawyers or anything like that to take into account.

      You’re right that Sollecito’s touch DNA could be, in principle, in various locations in the flat. But we shouldn’t expect it to be in Kercher’s bedroom (unless he had participated in the murder). According to trial testimony, the police did take the basic precautions of working progressively in a single direction and assigning separate teams to separate rooms. Coupled with general common-sense and glove changing, even in the case that there were some lapses in that, the precautions taken should rule out contamination.

      The million dollar question is whether C&V’s DVD is so shocking that the assurances of the police at first instance can no longer be relied on. Impossible to say without having seen it (and, it should be noted, C&V don’t detail what the actual breaches are in their report). Judging from media reports, though, it seems to be mainly about hairnets and facemasks. If media reports turn out to be misleading in this respect, then maybe its a different matter.

  7. Hi Maundy,

    As recorded in the Massei report, Stefanoni’s views of how often to change gloves are way out of the mainstream. Moreover, there is photographic evidence of failure to change gloves (Stefanoni’s bracelet and the same crease showing up in a glove handling multiple items of evidence). What is your theory as to how the clasp got moved between November and December?

    • maundy says:

      I don’t think you’re right about Stefanoni’s view of glove changing. Even the authorities Googled by V&C are mostly vague: “change gloves often, or if
      contaminated”; “use clean gloves”; “always wear disposable gloves”; “make sure that everyone who enters the scene wears… gloves”. Only Interpol (in guidelines published in 2009) is more stringent, suggesting that gloves should be changed “for each item”. But the practicalities of that are complex. How many “items” were there in the flat?

      I’d add to that my own view that there are certain highly important items – such as the bra-clasp – that should not have been handled with gloves that had touched anything else. But that is only my own view, and I have not seen any evidence in any event that the police took a different view in this case.

      With regards to how the clasp got moved, it is only possible to speculate, I think. But it must have happened on or before 7 November.

  8. Hi Maundy,

    Upthread I provided references on gloves from Orchid Cellmark, a DNA testing company, and from John Butler’s textbook (2005), which is one of a very small number of textbooks in the field and is highly regarded. The author of the articles in Forensic Magazine, Dick Warrington, is employed by a company who makes equipment for crime scene investigations. In the English translation of the Massei report (p. 203) it says that Stefanoni “specified” that gloves were changed “every time an object was touched that was particularly soaked with blood, and when it was obvious that the gloves would be soiled;” On pages 204-205 she appears to believe that the presence of a liquid is necessary to bring about contamination by touch.

    • maundy says:

      I don’t think suggesting that Stefanoni may actually be ignorant about the basics of DNA transfer betrays very much objectivity. Apart from that, I’m not sure what exactly you think is wrong with her advice. It certainly doesn’t appear, as you suggest above, “way out of the mainstream”. Look at this website, from which C&V seem to have sourced a number of evidence collection manuals (there are 12 there in all). Most of those make no recommendation at all that gloves should be changed with any particular frequency at a crime scene. The most stringent I can find is “change gloves often, or if contaminated” (Montana State Crime Lab), which seems to be pretty much the same as what Stefanoni is saying (because you can only know there is contamination if it is visible).

      You’ll notice that Butler’s standard (“Gloves should be changed between handling of different items of evidence”) is, strictly speaking, inoperable, because of the difficulty in knowing prior to conducting your search what constitutes and item of evidence and what is just an immaterial object. But let’s try to apply it anyway. Do we have any information that says that the clasp was handled with gloves that had been used to handle another piece of evidence – in particular, one that might reasonably have had Sollecito’s DNA on it?

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