We pick up where we left off, in the middle of discussions about the reliability or otherwise of DNA evidence taken from a knife, alleged by prosecutors to have been used by Knox in the murder, and from the clasp of the victim’s bra, said to have been removed from her body by Sollecito after she died.
That’s a debate that took some dramatic twists and turns before the court went on its holidays, and it may be that we have not yet reached the end of that twisty-turny phase.
At the end of June, two court-appointed scientific experts submitted a report re-examining the conclusions of the forensic work originally performed on these two highly important pieces of evidence. The report presented a clear argument that the results seen could plausibly have been the result of contamination, either in the laboratory or during the collection and handling of the evidence. During that collection and handling, they said, procedures fell below that which ought to be expected. Furthermore, not enough was known about procedures in the lab to be sure that contamination could not have occurred there, particularly in the case of the knife, because the amount of the victim’s DNA apparently found on the blade was so tiny that even a very small slip in procedure could have caused it to be present due to cross-contamination from samples of the same DNA previously run in the lab. They recommended that DNA from neither the knife nor the clasp should be considered reliable.
That hasn’t been the end of the matter, though. The prosecution, finding themselves suddenly playing the defence in a sort of play-within-a-trial, began their fightback in the last session before the summer break. Most significantly, lead prosecutor Manuela Comodi was able to get Carla Vecchiotti to agree that the amount of time that had passed between the testing of the knife and clasp samples and any prior testing related to the Kercher case had been sufficient so that it was unrealistic that any potentially contaminating DNA might have still been present in the lab. That seems to add up to a pretty impressive turnaround on the part prosecutors, since it may make questions about the standards applied in the lab irrelevant. Whatever they were like, it’s not possible to contaminate a sample with DNA which isn’t there.
It’s particularly significant in the case of the knife, because it was recovered from Sollecito’s flat and it is well-established that Kercher had never been there. It therefore seems unlikely that her DNA could have got onto the blade by any means in that location. If it can’t have been contaminated there and it can’t have been contaminated in the lab, then it remains reliable evidence. Not long ago, the knife seemed all but destined for the evidentiary trashbin. Not any more. But the defence may not yet have said all they have to say about that.
The situation is different with the bra-clasp, because that was recovered from the flat where Sollecito’s girlfriend, Knox, lived and he had been there numerous times. The prosecution are insistent that the chances of his DNA being on the clasp by contamination are too slim to be taken seriously, even if there were lapses in protocol at the crime scene. But the court has been shown a DVD of forensic work that went on there, which the defence hope will have demonstrated that this is not a safe assumption. I’ve only seen a few short extracts from that DVD, but I guess the big question is what the judges and juror-judges will have made of it. Will it have looked to them like a standard crime scene, perhaps with one or two forgiveable lapses of concentration on the part of investigators? Or will they have struggled to keep the Benny Hill theme tune from playing in their heads as they watched?
On Monday, further cross-examination of Carla Vecchiotti and her colleague Stefano Conti is scheduled, this time by Francesco Maresca, counsel for the Kercher family. He has expressed to the media in no uncertain terms his exasperation at the DNA report. For him, it was one-sided and incomplete. No doubt that’s something he’ll be repeating. He’ll also want to get his questionees to repeat the thing about contamination in the lab. But will he have anything up his sleeve that can do the same for the clasp as has apparently been done for the knife?
We can expect that questioning to be thorough, so there may not be time for much else. But, if there is, the court may here from personnel involved in the original forensic work. There may also be mention of Luciano Aviello, a Mafioso who previously testified that his brother had murdered Kercher, but has since said he was offered money for this testimony and he was lying. Aviello was never really a credible witness, so I don’t think this will have any impact on the appeal, but the court will want to get his retraction on record at some point.
There was a good article about the case in yesterday’s New York Times. The first thing that struck me about it was the title: “Mother’s Long Vigil for Seattle Woman Jailed in Murder”. I’m sure that must be the first headline about the case in nearly four years not to feature the word “Knox”, which may be a sign of how far out of the public consciousness the story has slipped. The second thing was a quote from Manuela Comodi apparently agreeing with me that the second most important element to the prosecution case, after the knife and clasp, is the evidence of a staged break-in at the crime scene.