Newcomers to this blog are advised to begin with the first two posts, Just the Facts, Ma'am and Case Solved, which explain in very general terms why I believe I've solved this case. Some important questions are answered in the following post, Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, Misdirections. After that feel free to browse whatever topics might interest you (see blog archive).

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Friday, July 27, 2012

The Magical DNA

Over the years, as one by one various red herrings tossed out by "team Ramsey" were accounted for, they and their defenders took refuge on a single fragile, but in their minds secure, lifeboat: a few fragments of "foreign" male DNA found in JonBenet's panties, mixed with a spot of her blood, that couldn't be sourced to anyone in the family or the larger circle of friends, employees, etc. This was the perfect refuge, because the Ramseys could always claim this DNA was that of their daughter's killer, and so long as no source could be found, there was no way such a claim could be refuted, absolutely positively, with no possibility of "reasonable doubt."



What has often been overlooked in this case is the very real difference between any doubt at all, no matter how remote and unlikely, and doubt that is indeed reasonable, i.e., that can be reasonably maintained on the basis of normal common sense. There is probably no criminal case ever tried in which some element of doubt could not be raised, but in order for this to count in a court of law, the doubt must be deemed reasonable, i.e., not simply a legal maneuver deliberately concocted to sow confusion.

DNA evidence is almost always based on DNA extracted from identifiable human cells, e.g., blood cells, skin cells, saliva cells, sperm cells, etc. Such cells can be transferred from one person to another in all sorts of ways, both directly and indirectly. If one cannot either trace the circumstances by which the cells were transferred or identify their source, then the DNA evidence is essentially meaningless, since it could always have been transferred in a perfectly innocent manner. To make this point as forcefully as possible, I'll once again quote The Guardian, Jan 17, 2012, CSI Oxford: behind the scenes at Britain's top forensic lab:

Rigour, continuity, integrity of procedure are all. . . Because the thing about DNA evidence, strong as it is, large as it looms in the public's imagination, is that it connects a human and an object. It doesn't prove when the two came into contact. Nor does it necessarily prove they were actually in direct contact at all. "It's not just the finding of the evidence," says Ros Hammond, a senior scientific adviser who has worked on many high-profile cases. "It's how did it get there, and can we rule out any other way it did so? And what does it mean?" (My emphasis)
In the Ramsey case, the blood DNA that arguably played the crucial role in forestalling prosecution for so many years couldn't even be traced to a particular cell. No semen was found. No skin cells were found. No foreign cells of any kind were found. The fragments of foreign DNA had been mixed with the victim's blood, thus mixed with her DNA, and could be isolated only thanks to a recently developed, highly sophisticated and complex, methodology. No one had any idea where that DNA was from or how it could have gotten into her blood. Nevertheless, the Ramsey attorneys insisted this had to have originated from her attacker, and since no match was ever found (to this day), no DA felt safe in attempting an indictment.

Over time, other bits of DNA from inside the victims fingernails were examined (this turned out to be contaminated and was ultimately discounted) and further testing of the blood DNA led to the production of 10 markers (there were originally only 9), which made it available for inclusion in the FBI's CODIS database. Team Ramsey then assured us it was only a matter of time before CODIS came up with a match. Of course as we know, almost 16 years after the murder, no match has been found.

Even if a match did somehow emerge, there were only 10 markers, while a complete set is 13, meaning that a prosecution based solely on a DNA match would have been impossible in any case. The prosecutor would still have to offer additional evidence that this person had been in the house on that particular night. But what evidence could he possibly present? That the suspect once owned HiTec boots? That he owned a Maglite? That his palm print was identical to that of Melinda Ramsey's? That someone once saw him carrying some rope in a bag? Also how could the prosecutor prove that the DNA hadn't been transferred to JonBenet indirectly, through some completely innocuous connection? I'll have more to say on this possibility presently.

Even if his handwriting were matched to that of the note, a good lawyer would undoubtedly point to all the experts on record as convinced that Patsy and only Patsy could have written it. If Patsy hadn't written it after all, that meant the whole idea of using "experts" to identify handwriting was totally discredited. His lawyer would no doubt point to all the absurdities associated with the intruder theory that have never been explained: why would a kidnapper leave the body in the house; why would he go to the trouble of hiding it in a remote basement room; and why if he had no way of removing the body, would he leave a note behind even when it no longer could serve any purpose? Also, how did he get in and out, and why wasn't there more evidence of his presence than just some odd snippets of DNA?

For some time nothing much happened on the DNA front, until in July 2008, there was a dramatic "break" in the case. According to an ABC News report,
New DNA evidence from the JonBenet Ramsey murder case positively clears her parents and points the finger at a man whose DNA profile is not currently in any criminal database, the Boulder County District Attorney's Office announced Wednesday. . .

On Wednesday, District Attorney Mary Lacy told John in the letter that "significant new evidence that has recently been discovered through the application of relatively new methods of DNA analysis" clears John, his wife, and their son, Burke, from "any suspicion in the commission of this crime." . . .

Lacy explained that last summer, investigators became aware of a new method of DNA evidence collecting called "touch DNA" that would scrape places where there were no stains or other signs of DNA presence to see if genetic material could be collected. The District Attorney's Office contacted the Bode Technology Group near Washington, D.C., to scrape JonBenet's longjohns, which were probably handled by the perpetrator.

The firm confirmed that the DNA it collected on the waistband of the two sides of the longjohns matched the DNA of a blood drop on the inside crotch of JonBenet's underwear."The match of male DNA on two separate items of clothing worn by the victim at the time of the murder makes it clear to us that an unknown male handled these items," Lacy wrote. "That genetic profile belongs to a male and does not belong to anyone in the Ramsey family."
I'll discuss the meaning of this new evidence and respond to Lacy's very questionable interpretation in the next episode. Stay tuned . . .


2 comments:

  1. I have always wondered if Team Ramsey, upon learning of the new collection technique realized that they were almost certain to find some touch DNA somewhere, which could then be attributed to the "intruder". I wonder who's idea it really was to do the touch DNA testing.

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