Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Raffaele Sollecito’s DNA In Meredith’s Room Could Be Definitive Proof Of Guilt For New Appeal Jury

Posted by James Raper

Have you followed our series on the hapless independent DNA consultants Conti and Vecchiotti?  And our series on the hapless appeal judges Hellmann and Zanetti?

And our series on their formidable nemesis, Umbria’s Chief Prosecutor, Dr Galati? Who may very well convince the Supreme Court to throw out all of their work?

This post explains why their work probably deserves to be thrown out as it applies to Sollecito’s DNA in Meredith’s room, which still lacks an alternative non-damning explanation for it being there, and which could see him back serving his term in Capanne or Terni Prison before too long. 

I want to start this analysis with the following verbatim quote taken from John Follain’s Death In Perugia.

“Comodi asked Vecchiotti about the alleged contamination of the bra clasp: “Is it possible for [Raffaele’s] DNA to end up only on the bra clasp?”

“Possible”, Vecchiotti said.

Comodi insisted: “Probable?”

“Probable”, Vecchiotti retorted.

Anyone who has read the Conti-Vecchiotti Report will be amazed by Vecchiotti’s above reply under cross-examination by Prosecutor Comodi. This for the simple reason that the said report did not at all evaluate the “probability” of any contamination of the bra clasp. It merely did not rule out contamination.

The Conti-Vecchiotti report with regard to the bra clasp: “It cannot be ruled out that the results obtained derive from environmental contamination and/or contamination in some phase of the collection and/or handling of the exhibit.”

On any level of understanding, if one can not rule something out then that makes it possible. But it certainly does not make it probable.

Worse was to come, with the conclusion of Hellmann-Zanetti, that contamination was probable. This though was not so surprising in as much as Hellmann-Zanetti had already indicated in their reasoning underlying the need for an independent report that they would accept the independent experts’ conclusions.

Which they did, apparently accepting Vecchiotti’s above statement on oath as definitive and which, as we can see, they appear to subsequently improve on, since the circumstances referred to below were not mentioned in the Conti-Vecchiotti Report.  From Hellmann-Zanetti:

In the opinion of this Court contamination did not occur during the successive phases of treatment of the exhibit in the laboratory of the Scientific Police, but even before it’s collection by the Scientific Police.

Note that (1)  the suggestion is that contamination occurred when there was no video recording (thus permitting free speculation), (2) the word “probably” is omitted here seemingly making it a definite occurrence, and (3) “even before” does not exclude contamination when the Scientific Police were there, but the circumstances described below make it, in the opinion of Hellmann-Zanetti, even more probable, it seems. Again from Hellmann-Zanetti:

..it is certain that between the first search by the scientific police, directly after the discovery of the crime, and the second search by the police, on the 18th December, the house at villa della Pergola was the object of several other searches directed towards seeking other possible elements useful for the investigation, during which the house was turned topsy-turvy, as is clearly documented by the photographs projected by the defence of the accused, but actually made by the Scientific Police. And, understandably these searches were made without the precautions that accompany the investigations of the Scientific Police, in the conviction that at that point the exhibits that needed to undergo scientific analysis had already been collected. In this context it is probable that the DNA hypothetically belonging to Raffaele Sollecito may have been transported by others into the room and precisely onto the bra clasp………..the fact that [this] is not an unusual occurrence is proven by studies cited by the expert team and also by the defence consultants……..

So Hellmann-Zanetti are talking about the ordinary police investigators being primarily responsible.

As the Vecchiotti quote at the beginning of this post is not put in any context, it is impossible for me to know whether she was referring to the Scientific Police as seen in their videos or whether she was alluding to other recorded searches, say, by the ordinary police, but which were not on video.

What we know of the police searches is as follows. From the Massei trial sentencing report:

While forensic activity was still in progress (Note: it having been going on since the 2nd) “the house was accessed on November 4th 2007 involving, accompanied by staff from the Perugia Police Headquarters, the three occupants and housemates of the victim.

The days of November 6 and 7 were taken up by the search activity of personnel from the police headquarters of Perugia….on November 6” (Note: the day after conclusion of the Scientific Police activity) “no-one entered Meredith’s room other than the three performing the search. On November 7 there was another entry into the house “for the problem of the washing machine, to collect the clothes; but I (Napoleoni) know that they did not go into the other rooms…..

They wore gloves and shoe covers….

Massei also records that Profazio stated that whilst he was aware from Stefanoni that the bra clasp had not been collected, nevertheless he had not seen it on the 6th and 7th.

As we know, the Scientific Police returned to the house on the 18th December specifically for the purpose of collecting the bra clasp (the first thing they did) and using luminol, and in addition to this being on video the defence lawyers were watching the live recording outside. It was observed by the defence lawyers at that stage that the mattress was in the living room and that articles had been moved around (topsy-turvy) in her bedroom.

From the above it might be reasonable to conclude that it was not only the Scientific Police who took the photographs but that it was predominantly they who had already moved items around and taking - it not having been demonstrated to the contrary (because not on video) - such precautions appropriate to their field of expertise (or at least such as may be determined from the videos).

However the point is, of course, what entitles Vecchiotti and Hellmann-Zanetti to talk about probable contamination at all?

Incidentally, pause here to notice that Hellmann-Zanetti give no credence to environmental contamination, in the sense of DNA floating around on specks of dust, by virtue of not mentioning this at all.

It would seem that the notion that a speck of dust, with Sollecito’s DNA attached, floated into the room and landed bang on a tiny hook, somehow adhering to it, is improbable to even them. It is transfer by manipulation (  tertiary transfer, about which more later) - basically that someone must have stepped on or touched the bra clasp or hook - about which they are talking and as a result of which they deem contamination to have probably occurred.

Without that probability -  that is if it remained only a possibility - then the case for direct transfer (directly from the owner of the DNA to an object), rather than tertiary transfer (where the DNA is collected after direct transfer and transferred to another object), would not be undermined as the more probable scenario. This is because, in this context, no-one can rule out possibility, “ possibility” being firmly rooted in the abstract.

What Hellmann-Zanetti think entitles them to talk about the probability of contamination are, and as it transpires only are, the precautions which they say were not followed in collecting and handling the exhibit and for which they suppose the non-scientific police were most likely responsible.

Compliance with these, they say, “guarantees” the reliability of the result. They refer to the Do’s and Do Not’s of successful crime scene management as listed by Conti-Vecchiotti and taken from guidelines from the Louisiana State Crime Police Laboratory, from the U.S Department of Justice, and more relevantly from Evidence Manuals from the New Jersey State Police, Missouri State Highway Patrol and North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.

There is a predominance of American references but they do also refer to the Good Practice Manual for Crime Scene Management promoted by ENFSI (European Network of Forensic Science Institutes). From Hellmann-Zanetti -

Regarding above all the identification of a genetic profile in an exhibit, it is important that the entire procedure be followed with complete observance of the rules dictated by the scientific community, which are not, to be sure, juridical rules (it is not a law of the State, as Dr. Stefanoni observed), but which do represent a guarantee of the reliability of the result. And since these rules also contain precautions necessary in order to avoid possible contamination, one can understand that the respect of these precautions cannot simply be assumed, but must be proven by anyone who bases his accusations on this result.

Rules and guidelines are not quite the same thing, still less are there standardised guidelines dictated by the scientific community, but let’s not be pernickety. What compliance with the guidelines does, of course, is reduce the risk (the “possibility” and yes, if there are elements supporting it, “the probability“) of contamination, not guarantee that there is not contamination. As any expert in the field will concede, contamination is always possible.

Conti-Vecchiotti listed, apparently, some 54 examples of breach of the aforesaid guidelines. Significant among these (because we know of them and the most was made of them) are the following listed by Follain in his book Death In Perugia-

1. The team failed to put on new gloves after bagging each sample ( probably, as with 2 below, accounting for the great majority of the examples, and Stefanoni admitted this did not happen every time).

2. Items were handled by more than one person without changing gloves (again, as above, admitted).

3. There was a smudge on one of the fingertips of one of the gloves which touched the clasp, so the glove was dirty.

4. The officer who picked up Meredith’s bra clasp passed it to a colleague before placing it back on the floor and then bagging it.

5. Stefanoni’s gloves were smudged with blood and split over her left index when she picked up a sample ( this need not detain us since it is an irrelevant and highly speculative and prejudicial observation, if not entirely erroneous, based on what can be seen from the video).

6. The officer filming the police video walked in and out of Meredith’s room without changing his shoe covers.

7. No security corridor was created for internal access with anti - contamination criteria between the various environments.

8. The initial position of discovery on the floor of the clasp was not the same after 46 days.

The idea of a security corridor which, given the confines of the cottage, and particularly the access to Meredith’s room, would mean, for instance, placing planks on the floor, is a good one, and obviously not followed in this instance though not actually a specific recommendation (though it can be inferred) in any of the guidelines referred to by Conti-Vecchiotti. It would have reduced the risk of carrying DNA into Meredith’s room on the soles of shoe covers.

The alleged breaches were not, of course, outlined in the Conti-Vecchiotti report. They were only mentioned in oral evidence accompanying the showing of the crime scene video in court.

Hellmann-Zanetti, in their report, mention two specific cases only, 3 and 8 above. In respect of “the smudge” they acknowledge, interestingly, that there is an unresolved issue of interpretation as to whether this is a shadow or prior staining! But why even posit a prior staining when it is obvious that the operative had to finger the fabric of the clasp (which was “dirty”) in order to pick the clasp up and show it to the camera? What was the dirt and what was the meaning of this in the context of a transfer of Sollecito’s DNA to the hook? They neither discuss not evaluate. They simply accept Conti-Vecchiotti’s observations as being pertinent and damning without question.

In contrast to Hellmann-Zanetti Massei does discuss and evaluate the probability and the logistics of contamination, with regard to the bra clasp. In fact he spends quite a bit of time on the subject. But before turning to that, let’s have a brief look at the subject of DNA transfer and then remember what Stefanoni (as quoted by Massei) says on the subject.

Primary transfer might occur between a subject (such as myself) and an object. I touch or sneeze over it. Secondary transfer could occur if the said object was moved and “placed” against yet another object so that my DNA is transferred from the first to the second object. Tertiary transfer could occur if someone touched my DNA on the first object and then touched the second object. There are three steps there but one can imagine scenarios with four or perhaps more such steps but with the inherent limitation that the quantity of DNA being transferred is going to reduce with each such step.

It is obvious that when the prosecution produce DNA evidence they are going to argue primary transfer by the accused and just as equally obvious that the defence are going to try and argue contamination, i.e that the presence of their client’s DNA is the product of secondary or tertiary transfer.

Stefafanoni said that secondary or tertiary does not happen unless (1) the DNA is in a substance which is still fresh and reasonably watery after primary transfer, not dried, and/or (2) there would have to be more than mere touch but friction, or at least pressure, as well. Whilst there could be isolated exceptions in practice this makes a lot of sense to me as a layman but in addition I also note that she was not contradicted, at the trial, by any of the defence experts, nor has she been contradicted by Conti-Vecchiotti in their report.

Returning to Massei.

Sollecito was at the cottage 3 or 4 times prior to the murder though on each occasion with Knox. It is thus possible that he left his DNA somewhere there. There is no evidence that he was ever in Meredith’s room before the murder. Thus, if he was not involved in the murder, one must hypothesize that his DNA from somewhere else in the cottage was transferred into Meredith’s room and onto the bra clasp by someone other than him.

Apart from the clasp there was only one other place where his DNA was to be found, mixed with Knox’s DNA, which was on a cigarette stub in an ashtray sitting on a table in the kitchen. From Massei, my numbering:

(1) Certainly, it can be observed that every single place in the house was not tested, and one might think that Raffaele Sollecito’s DNA might have been located in some other places. One can consider the possibility that his DNA from some other place that was not found was transferred onto the bra clasp, but this would have to have been done by someone manipulating the object.

(2) But simple contact between objects does not transfer DNA. Amanda’s and Raffaele’s DNA were both found on the cigarette stub, not just one of them, transferred by the other. It is also important that the bra was the one that Meredith was actually wearing, and the clasp was found under the pillow which was under Meredith……. At this point it should also be mentioned that the piece of bra was (then)  found under a small rug in Meredith’s room [which protected it] ……….

(3) It is also observed that the small rug did not show itself to be a good transmitter of DNA. Underneath it there was a sock, and analysis proved that on this sock there were only DNA traces of Meredith. Also the circumstance by which DNA was found on the (tiny) hooks - so on a more limited and rather less absorbent surface than the material attached to them - tends to exclude that Raffaele Sollecito’s DNA could have landed on the hooks, precisely on the hooks, by contamination or by transfer from some other unspecified object.

(4). …….any transfer of DNA from the surface of the rug under which the small piece of bra was found would imply that between the two objects there was more than simple contact, touching of each other, but an actual pressure exercised on the rug under which the piece of bra lay. This hypothesis was set aside after Dr. Stefanoni reported …….. the deformation of one of the hooks was the same. Vice versa, if some pressure had been exerted on top of it, if in one of the police activities someone had stepped on it—then that deformation would not have remained identical; but the small piece of material and the hooks and eyes had the same form, the exact same type of deformation …….. she additionally stated that, having seen the small piece of bra in the early hours of November 3rd rather quickly, the images of it taken on that occasion allowed her a more prolonged and attentive observation, enabling her to declare that the deformation had remained unmodified and unchanged, as did the side on which it was set on the floor.

(5) Objects were moved, necessarily moved, but every object that was in a room, if it was not actually taken away, remained in the same room, without ever moving to another room, or being taken out of the room and then back in. The only parts of the house through which operators from the various places all passed were thus the living room and corridor. One might thus assume that some DNA of Raffaele Sollecito that had been left somewhere in the living room or corridor was moved, and ended up on the hooks. Such a movement of DNA and its subsequent repositioning on the hooks would have had to occur either because one of the technicians walking on the floor on which the DNA was lying hit it with his foot or stepped on it, causing it to end up on the hooks, or because by stepping on them, he impressed onto them the DNA caught underneath the shoe-cover he had on in that moment.

But these possibilities cannot be considered as concretely plausible: to believe that, moving around the house, the DNA could have been kicked or stepped on by one of the technicians, who in that case would have been moving about, and to believe that this DNA, instead of just sticking to the place it had been kicked or stepped on by (probably the shoe, or rather, the shoe-cover), having already been moved once from its original position, would then move again and end up on the hooks, seems like a totally improbable and risky hypothesis.

(6) …..and more importantly, none of the operators, after having touched some object which might have had Raffaele Sollecito’s DNA on it, then touched the hooks of the small piece of bra so as to make even hypothetically possible a transfer of DNA (from the object containing Sollecito’s DNA to the gloves, from the gloves to the hooks). In fact, none of the operators during the search of November 6th and 7th even took note of that little piece of bra, and thus in particular no one picked it up.” [Note that this observation is a direct contradiction of the unproven suspicion that this had in fact occurred - Massei had, of course, also watched the crime scene videos, seen the relevant clip and heard the argument.]

(7) Movement of objects, in particular of clothing, may have induced the movement of other objects, and this is what the Court considers to have occurred with respect to the piece of bra which was seen on the floor of Meredith’s room on November 2nd-3rd and left there. Deputy Commissioner Napoleoni, referring to the search of November 6th, has declared that she recalled the presence of a bluish rug; one can thus conclude that this rug was looked at during the search and entered into contact with the operators making the search, and like other objects, was moved from its original position, but always remaining on the floor of the room; during this movement it must have covered up the piece of bra (which was on the floor of the same room and yet was not noted during the search), thus determining by its own motion the accompanying motion of the small piece of bra, making it end up where it was then found during the inspection of December 18th: under the rug, together with a sock, in the same room, Meredith’s room, where it had already been seen. So it underwent a change of position that is, thus, irrelevant to the assertion of contamination.

Now, whatever one makes of Massei’s observations, he has at least considered, on a plausible level, the dynamics of secondary and tertiary transfer, generally and in this case - unlike either Hellmann-Zanetti or Conti-Vecchiotti. Furthermore, and in consequence, he concluded that contamination was simply not probable.

We should also recall the following words with regard to second and tertiary transfer, in the quote from Hellmann-Zanetti above…………”the fact that this is not an unusual occurrence is proven by studies cited by the expert team and also by the defence consultants….”

What studies? Unfortunately Hellmann-Zanetti do not elaborate on these studies, and the proof therein allegedly contained, nor can we see them cited in the Conti-Vecchiotti report!

This leads me to the suspicion that Hellmann-Zanetti are trying to pull the wool over our eyes here. Yes, certainly secondary and tertiary transfer is not an unusual occurrence but the circumstances as to when this is likely, or not, is not discussed, let alone evaluated. It seems to me that this is not unimportant and the omission is surprising.

What Conto-Vecchiotti actually say about the subject in their report is mind-boggingly amateurish, trite and misleading. So much so that one doubts that they are really experts.

The relevant section about contamination (such as it is) in Conti-Vecchiotti is under the heading “Notes On Inspection And Collection Techniques”. Reading this I note, in the second paragraph, being in, it would seem, Conti-Vecchiotti’s own words:

The starting point is always Locard’s Principle according to which two objects which come into contact with each other exchange material in different forms. Equally the same principle scientifically supports the possibility of contamination and alteration [of the scene] on the part of anyone else, investigators included, who comes into contact with the scene.

Far from being just a starting point Locard’s Principle seems to be all that Conti and Vecchiotti know about the transfer of DNA.

For what it is worth Edmond Locard established an early crime lab in 1910 ( being a fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories) and wrote many articles as a result. However he never actually wrote any words approximating to “with contact there is an exchange of material” (which is not exactly a law of physics in the same manner as the laws of motion are) nor did he mention anything concerning a principle.

What he did write was “It is impossible for a criminal to act, especially given the intensity of the crime, without leaving traces of his presence.”  Sherlock Holmes would have said the same.

Incidentally it is science that supports a principle, and not the other way around. I would have expected Conti-Vecchiotti to know that.

I have surfed the internet for articles on the subject of tertiary transfer and there does seem to be “a lack of published data on the topic”, to quote one site I found.

Furthermore if they existed one might expect to find that they are referred to by the scientists in the FOA camp, but again I do not see these or that those that are referred to, eg by Halkides, add anything to what has already been discussed above.

Which leaves the “probability” element of contamination undemonstrated. Whatever the opportunities for contamination that there may have been arising from breach of guidelines (contentious in some if not all cases) these remain hypothetical whilst the probability of contamination remains undemonstrated.

But for Hellmann-Zanetti, conveniently, there is no need to demonstrate anything, because of the following:

Now, Prof. Novelli and also the Prosecutor stated that it is not sufficient to assert that the result comes from contamination; it is incumbent on one who asserts contamination to prove its origin.

However, this argument cannot be accepted, insomuch as it ends up by treating the possibility of contamination as an exception to the civil code on the juridical level. Thus, one cannot state: I proved that the genetic profile is yours, now you prove that the DNA was not left on the exhibit by direct contact, but by contamination. No, one can’t operate this way.

In the context of a trial, as is well known, it falls to the PM who represents the prosecution before the court (the terminology is used in Art. 125 of the implementing provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure), to prove the viability of all the elements on which it is based, and thus, when one of these elements is completed by a scientific element represented by the result of an analytic procedure, the task is also to prove that the result was obtained using a procedure which guarantees the purity [genuinità] of the exhibit from the moment of collection right through the analysis.

…….. when there is no proof that these precautions guaranteeing that the result is not the fruit of contamination were respected, it is absolutely not necessary to also prove the specific origin of the contamination.

The use of the word “absolutely” is interesting, as if this was the last word on the matter, and any evaluation is to be declined.

Now I sense the presence of a premise which is already a conclusion. This being that because there are (as Hellmann-Zanetti hold) breaches of guidelines, then the DNA result is unreliable for that reason.

As it happens, this is exactly what Conti-Vecchiotti say. But as it stands this is an unargued proposition. For this to be a valid deduction “for that reason” should be explained by the inclusion of another premise which we can at least accept as true - “A breach entails that the possibility of contamination cannot be excluded”. Then we can formulate a simple deduction, though it would be unsound until we can answer the question “Does the possibility of contamination render the result unreliable?”

A scientist may explain what “unreliable” means to him. But I want to answer the question in juridical terms, and this can be done quite simply.

Any element of evidence in juridical proceedings is weighed only by the probability that it represents the truth. The possibility that it does, or it does not, is simply to be discarded as having no weight either way. Accordingly, for the purpose of the argument, and for any proceedings in court, it cannot be accepted that the possibility of contamination renders the result unreliable. Whether it is unreliable or not has to be looked at in a different way, according to the balance of probabilities.

Getting back to the quote, I would say that both Hellmann-Zanetti and Novelli are right, and they are also both wrong.

Hellmann-Zanetti are of course right in that the burden of proof remains with the prosecution with regard to all elements.

And the way Prof. Novelli puts it is somewhat incorrect, but only because he is a scientist and not a lawyer.

That the burden of proof remains with the prosecution does not alleviate the defence of any burden with regard to an issue such as contamination.

There is also an issue to be discussed as to whether the burden on the prosecution is to demonstrate non-contamination beyond a reasonable doubt or merely that contamination is not probable.

Let’s start with whether there is any burden on the defence.

There is a general principle to which even criminal proceedings are subject. “Onus probandi incumbit ei qui dicit, non ei qui negat.”  My Latin is not great but roughly translated “the onus of proof is on he who says it, not he who denies it.”

Dr Galati, in his Supreme Court Appeal Submissions, puts it this way (more forcibly than I would) -

In other words, if a piece of circumstantial evidence must be certain in itself, and if therefore even scientific proof must be immune to any alternative-explanation hypothesis, this does not alter the fact that this hypothesis ought to be based on reasonable elements and not merely abstract hypothetical ones. And if the refutation of a scientific piece of evidence passes via the affirmation of a circumstance of fact (being the contamination of an exhibit), that circumstance must be specifically proved, not being deducible from generic (and otherwise unshareable) considerations about the operative methodology followed by the Scientific Police, absent demonstration that the methods used would have produced, in the concrete, the assumed contamination.

I do not myself think it is realistic for the defence to have to prove a specific contamination path from point A to point B. That would be unrealistic. But certainly if the issue of contamination is to be raised the defence must go beyond an abstract hypothetical explanation that in the event, as is the case here, is devoid of known origins for the contamination. (Save for the trace on the cigarette stub, so that if that was the source there would be Knox’s DNA mixed in with Sollecito’s on the clasp). Otherwise how is the prosecution to respond? With what level of proof?

Should it be beyond reasonable doubt? How Hellmann-Zanetti would wish! “Beyond reasonable doubt” is the standard to be applied to the prosecution’s case in its entirety, to any attribution of culpability for the crime to the accused. It is not parcelled out to each and every element.

The correct standard to apply to an element such as contamination (as it is for any piece of circumstantial evidence) is “the balance of probability having regard to other elements”. The alleged breaches of crime management guidelines are in themselves only circumstantial, requiring, for any weight to be attached to them, corroborative or supporting elements as to which, as I see it, there are none. So the correct question is: Is contamination probable or not? (This is not to exclude that there may sometimes, somewhat rarely, be circumstances where it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt)

So we are back to probability again. It is a battle (if at all)  of probabilities and we must not confuse what is possible with what is probable, however much our eyes are opened to what is possible.

That it is such, is tacitly acknowledged by Hellmann-Zanetti when they argue that Sollecito’s DNA being on the bra hook but not on the fabric of the clasp is improbable. My response to that would be to say that it is far more probable than that there was contamination of the hook.

The absence of any argument as to probability may have been a thought that popped into Vecchiotti’s head when she retorted “probable” (feeling a bit sick about the answer afterwards I hope). However that she could make that assertion does not fill one with much confidence when considering that she also maintains that there were errors in Stefanoni’s interpretation of the electropherogram result, even whilst accepting that Sollecito‘s profile was there, not least because his Y chromosome was as well.

Don’t expect Conti and Vecchiotti to be re-invited if there is any replay of the appeal trial.


Thanks James, for your extended analysis of how the heck Hellman and Zanetti could have justified “contamination” as the explanation for Raffaele’s DNA on Meredith’s bra clasp.

We see that there is no real basis for that conjecture, no more than that a meteorite might have fallen upon the courthouse at any given moment.  The facts are:

- a clear sample of Raffaele’s DNA is on the clasp.

- there is no reason to believe that Raffaele manipulated Meredith’s bra in the few short days that he knew Knox before the murder.

- there is no reasonable scenario to believe that contamination of DNA samples took place either at the crimescene, or in transport to the forensic labs, or at the labs themselves (different cops, different transport, different lab days).

- there is therefore only one reasonable scenario which seems apparent: that Raffaele’s DNA was deposited during the night of the crime.

I would hope that Katie Couric takes this important information into account when she interviews Raffaele, and that she doesn’t limit herself to asking him about what books he has read since being sprung from prison.

Posted by Kermit on 09/11/12 at 02:43 PM | #

James and Kermit collaborated over some week on this, maybe our most impactful post ever.


Katie Couric should walk Sollecito page by page through that.

Posted by Peter Quennell on 09/11/12 at 03:04 PM | #

If you take a ball and put it in a box, and nail the cover securely, even then there is a finite probability that the ball may leak out of the box (and this will happen even without damaging the walls of the box). Impossible? Well, this is called quantum effect or tunnelling. Don’t believe me? See, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_tunnelling and other related sites.

Seriously speaking, I do not have much confidence in C&V and I would have loved the theory that the RS DNA taking a ride on a speck of dust and landing on the clasp of the bra. If RS loses DNA at that rate, he needs some medical attention urgently. Because if this idea is to be believed, then his DNA would have been found (also the DNA of all the others who were ever present there) everywhere.

Weight of a single human DNA is just less than 10 pg and a nanogram of DNA contains more than 100 molecules. This is not so small a quantity if you consider that each cell has only one DNA and each cell is about 1000 times as heavy as the DNA it has. A sample that has 100 DNA molecules must have about 100 cells and a mass of about 0.1 microgram (barely visible with the naked eye).

A crime scene in an open area, by the same token, will have the DNA of 1000s of people all over. This is both silly and meaningless as the tool will be useless for forensics.

How come there is no contamination from others at all?

The probability of contamination must be based on other experiments (how many samples had the DNA of the other residents of the building)- this is a simple problem to analyse as we must have 100s of DNA reports from other samples.

C&V does not explain that the probabilities they were talking about are non-zero only from a scientific angle but are practically zero under the context. They are clearly misleading in their answers.

Posted by chami on 09/11/12 at 05:46 PM | #

Thanks for the thorough analysis.

I think Novelli, the prosecution, and Massei are mostly right about establishing a vehicle for contamination.  This wouldn’t always be the case.  You mention Halkides and one of his favourite examples is the Leskie case where the suspect was proved to have been hundreds of kilometres from the crimescene.  For that reason alone the DNA had to be the result of contamination (or at least jumped far into the probability lead) and no process would have to be delineated.  Halkides helpfully furnishes dozens of similar cases where it was either highly improbable for the suspect to have committed the crime or where there was evidence of laboratory mismanagement (one lab had a ceiling perpetually dripping roof runoff into the sampling machinery).

In this case, though, Sollecito has no explanation at all for his whereabouts and displayed familiarity with the crimescene.  The challenge then is to explain logically how his DNA came to be found on an item separated from the rest of the cottage by a locked door.  The most probable reason is immediately that the door was not locked when his DNA was deposited.

Without worrying strictly about the science of secondary transfer or the legal definitions of various levels of evidence, the implication is any other explanation should be supported by something a little more tangible than a shoulder shrug and a ‘well—it could have been so’.  Logically, you’d want to elevate your second best explanation to at least an equivalent with the most probable (or least unlikely) explanation.  If you don’t then you risk having your second best remaining just that.

I know that in a legal setting it doesn’t always work this way and that, by throwing up a smokescreen containing virtually infinite sets of probabilities, you can hope to confuse the viewer into thinking that the best explanation is just one of many of equal value.  That’s really what C&V have done and Hellmann fell for it.

Posted by Stilicho on 09/11/12 at 06:19 PM | #

Thanks for the excellent analysis James.

Raffaele Sollecito’s DNA on Meredith’s bra clasp wasn’t LCN DNA. It was identified by two separate DNA tests. Professor Torricelli testified that it was unlikely that this amount of DNA was left by contamination.

When you put this evidence into the wider context of the other pieces of evidence against Sollecito - the lies and multiple alibis which all turned out to be false, the bloody footprint on the blue bathmat which matched the precise characteristics of his foot, the Luminol footprint which also matched his foot and the double DNA knife which was found in his kitchen - it’s obvious that Sollecito’s DNA got onto Meredith’s bra clasp because he touched it.

Posted by The Machine on 09/11/12 at 07:27 PM | #

To all the 9/11 victims who were so unjustly murdered by terrorists, this is a tribute. This is the 11th anniversary of the attacks.

My son has spent the whole day working with Student Veterans on his university campus (not in New York) to fundraise for fire and police who were first responders on 9/11. They bore the brunt of rescuing the beleaguered and terrified victims, burn victims, some crushed by concrete, smothered by ash, cut by glass, terrified out of their wits. Some even jumped to their deaths to escape the flames. I am grateful for police and firefighters across this nation and especially on 9/11 to New York’s finest.

To all the brave heroes and heroines in uniform or humble volunteers who saved lives and risked their own, I salute you and stand in awe of your selflessness.

Posted by Hopeful on 09/11/12 at 08:52 PM | #

Thanks Hopeful.

They do their duty and dont get paid so well and their job security recently collapsed, and they still pay a price in their health and restless sleep.

Is there really any great difference between these fine people and those other public servants who were and are doing their duty in Perugia and Rome?

Simply seeking justice for Meredith, because that is what they do? None of them ever had the chance to know her.

Posted by Peter Quennell on 09/11/12 at 11:28 PM | #

Great post on a vital yet difficult topic. Some good comments too.

As you said, Hellmann admitted the so-called international guidelines are not laws, yet in his mind it seems they are a requirement in order to guarantee a reliable result. Of course the guidelines are not a guarantee, and were never intended to be used that way.

A similar procedural error underlies his blind acceptance of the independent experts’ conclusions as a whole. I would think that there needs to be some evidence that he didn’t outsource his own job.

The probability of DNA contamination is something that even professionals find it hard to quantitate. There is no evidence in the literature that DNA can be transferred from something Sollecito touched to an investigator, who carried it into Sollecito’s room and transferred it to the bra clasp. This isn’t even secondary transfer (which itself is usually LCN). It’s tertiary transfer.

Back in the early days of HIV, people thought you could get it from a toilet seat, or by playing basketball with someone who was positive. The public health experts kept explaining the scientific rationale for why this wasn’t a concern, but it took a while for people to feel comfortable. One day, no educated person will think that Sollecito’s DNA got on the clasp through contamination. It’s just a matter of amassing enough experience to win over the holdouts.

But flash back to 1985 and suppose someone sues a shop owner saying that he got HIV from a toilet seat. Call me naive but I think the judge—even if he himself wasn’t sure that such transmission was impossible—would expect the plaintiff to produce compelling evidence that it was plausible, and that alternative explanations were unlikely. Nothing close to that level of evidence was forthcoming in this case.

Posted by brmull on 09/12/12 at 03:36 AM | #


RS promoting his book.

Posted by TruthWillOut on 09/12/12 at 05:29 AM | #

Thanks, TruthWillOut.

So the book is just a continuation of the lies and evasions we have already had to witness.

Who is going to believe that they were unaware of the photographers outside the cottage on the morning of the 2 Nov or that RS was so befogged by marijuana that he couldn’t account for/got confused about what they were doing over the critical hours?!

To what extent, I wonder, is he going to reproduce what he wrote in his diary?

Posted by James Raper on 09/12/12 at 06:42 AM | #

Google News reports 1380 hits on the AP Sollecito book story as of 7 am NYC time. Similar to past AP stories on the case - by far the most from any service or reporter.

Similar to James’s above, the negative comments under the media site postings of the story are growing. Please link to TJMK if you post any? We may have a quick post on TJMK later on what it says of Sollecito’s claims. Much more later in the Katie Couric context.

No mention by AP of the Galati appeal, or the fact that Sollecito still stands accused of murder until the Supreme Court signs off.  I agree with past comments of Stilicho on PMF that Sollecito is probably in the US illegally - no way he put on his visa application (if he made one - Europeans dont always have to) that he still stands accused of murder, which would have stopped any application stone dead.

The AP is a co-operative here in NYC (west end of 34th near the Javits Conference Center) owned by maybe 1500 newspapers and 3000 TV stations and networks (based on old figures). AP is losing owners and its income is shrinking. It was itself in the news in the US in a small way accused of political bias.

Its reporting has been all over the map on Meredith’s case rather than systemically biased.  There were a few good reports early on by the Rome reporters but then it moved on to obsessions with AK’s birthday cakes etc in Capanne and almost zero mention of the Kerchers or Meredith.


Posted by Peter Quennell on 09/12/12 at 09:50 AM | #

I debated this issue with Mr. Halkides. He suggested that the contamination could (yes COULD) have resulted from contact with the door knob. Sollecito would have left his “touch” DNA on the door knob, and the police would have brought it into the room on their gloves - transfering it when they picked up the bra clasp.

Seems quite a stretch to me. I suspect it may be immediately falsifiable.


Posted by harrym on 09/12/12 at 08:09 PM | #


The take-home message of this post is that it doesn’t matter what’s possible, it matters what’s plausible.

The party making a claim must be able to show prima facie evidence in support of the claim. Proof that secondary transfer can occur under certain limited circumstances is not proof that tertiary transfer occurs.

Sollecito’s fingerprints were on Meredith’s door, so I’ll grant that traces of his touch DNA could have been there too. But the claim that an investigator touched those fingerprints, transferring some of this DNA to his glove, and then touched the clasp, transferring significant (i.e. non-LCN) quantities of the DNA to the clasp, is essentially pulled out of thin air. Meanwhile there exists an obvious explanation—that Sollecito touched the clasp.

Posted by brmull on 09/12/12 at 10:14 PM | #


Thanks. Actually it’s a door handle rather than a knob. So, suppose Sollecito’s DNA is on the handle.

I have tried an experiment and have grasped one of my own door handles. The palm and the underside of my fingers came into contact with the handle. The tips of my fingers did not.

Did an investigator palm the bra clasp? I think not.

Did an investigator touch the clasp with the underside of his/her gloved finger? Well, the fabric obviously, in order to be able to hold it, but the hooks? The defence tried to argue, somewhat vainly, but as they had to, the possibility that the hooks were so touched. Given, for the sake of argument, that DNA got on to the fabric, could the hooks have then been accidently contaminated?

We are into scenarios where DNA is transferred (including the original primary transfer) three times, but in some scenarios four times or more. Each such transfer diminishes the amount of DNA transferred, and we are into LCN territory, and the amount of DNA on the hooks was not LCN.

Greg Hampikian loves to hear the chuckles when he shows the clip of the bra clasp being held in one hand by one person whilst another person points at it with a fingertip, almost it seems touching it. Even if there were contact, was it on the hooks? Even if there were such contact what is the likelihood of transfer from an action clearly involving absolutely no pressure whatsoever? Even then there would be no transfer from a source that was the door handle because fingertips do not touch the handle as I ascertained from my experiment.

Posted by James Raper on 09/13/12 at 07:34 AM | #

I always appreciate having these issues closely analysed.

I agree with brmull point. I think there is a burden of proof on the part of those alleging contamination. It doesnt have to be definitive proof but there has to be a good reason to believe contamination took place - otherwise arnt all DNA convictions unsafe?

But I mentioned this so that people can directly confront the contra argument. In this case Halkides needs to explain Sollecitos DNA on a clasp in a locked room. He alleges the police contaminated the clasp. He explains his theory of how this happened. However there was a lot of Sollecito DNA on the hook. More than one might generally expect in a contamination case by, I believe, multiple factors of 10. And the literature I have come across about “touch DNA” leaves me confused. The impression I get is that you would have to really scrape your hand against a door handle to leave a trace. Merely clasping it wouldnt generally do it. If your main effort to open the door involves trying to kick it in, then that wouldnt explain it. Or am I wront about this question of “touch DNA”. How easy is it to leave behind touch DNA?

Posted by harrym on 09/13/12 at 10:26 AM | #


“How easy is it to leave behind touch DNA?”

That is the question. In addition people will differ as to their propensity to shed DNA. I saw one article by a New Zealand Research group which says that “easy shedders” are a minority of people.

If Sollecito falls into that group why was his DNA not found elsewhere other than on a fag butt - there, of course because his saliva was?

Where are these research articles that say it is not an uncommon occurrence? Why do C&V, H&Z and the FOA camp not cite and provide links to these?

Why not Hampikian? Instead he has to carry out an experiment of his own with soda cans, which backfires.

Here’s an extract from “The Genetics of Innocence & Guilt” in the Boise State Explorer. Given Hampikian’s connections with Boise State University we can pretty sure that he more or less wrote it himself.

“He (Hampikian) conducted an experiment using his lab staff and students and employees in the College of Arts & Sciences dean’s offices at Biose State. They became part of a mock crime scene where the evidence consisted of soda cans and knives (still in the package) from a dollar store.

The employees drank from the cans and then the lab workers collected the evidence. Hampikian asked the lab to do what he had seen in the Italian crime scene videos and change gloves after every other piece of evidence. So his research assistants put on gloves, collected one can and put it in an evidence bag, and then walked to a separate room, unwrapped a new knife and placed it in another evidence bag. They then changed gloves and repeated the process for a total of five cans and five knives.

The results ….. were telling. When the five knives were analysed using the validated instrument cutoff, no DNA contamination was found. But when the level was dropped to that used to implicate Knox, one of the five knives showed a staff member’s DNA - despite the fact that the staff member had never touched the knife.”

The following observations seem to be pertinent and significant -

1. I had supposed the experiment was going to show how easy touch transfer of DNA would be but instead the converse seems to be the case. Four out of five results failed to produce any evidence that -

a)  DNA got onto the cans despite being manhandled by his staff,and despite the aluminium being an ideal recipient, and

b) was then transferred by glove to a knife.

That seems to be one in the eye for that theory.

2. OK, one below “the cutoff”  analysis found the profile of a member of his staff on a knife But what does this tell us?

a) We are not told whether this person was the one to drink from the can or whether he was the one to wear gloves and touch both can and knife. Presumably the former as otherwise it would be only to easy for his DNA to be on the knife. He would have had to touch the gloves to put them on in the first place.

b) Does the experiment show us that a machine calibrated for RFUs below a certain level produces an unreliable result? Well not actually, no, since it is positively stated that the instrument showed a member of staff’s DNA, a member of staff (the premise would appear to be) whom we know had drunk from the can, otherwise how would his DNA have got on the can?

c) Hampikian can’t have it both ways. Either the experiment shows that touch transfer of DNA is possible (if not easy) or it doesn’t show it because the trace was LCN and the result, as Hampikian would have it, therefore unreliable. If the latter, incidentally, then we have five out of five fails. In any event the experiment does nothing to show that DNA contamination, or DNA transfer (call it what you like) is probable from touch transfer, which was his conclusion with regard to the Bra Clasp and The Knife.

3. The experiment is pointless as regards The Knife anyway. This because we know that The Knife was collected by an entirely different set of individuals from those who had been to the cottage, using gloves which had never been anywhere near the cottage, and that Meredith’s DNA was nowhere in Sollecito’s apartment because she had never been there.

4. As to the Bra Clasp Sollecito’s DNA was not low copy number.

Posted by James Raper on 09/13/12 at 11:36 AM | #


One point that has been consistently missed is that some parts of the body, where the outer skin is thin (lips, anus etc.) can lose cells (and hence DNA) at a much faster rate. If your lips touch a cup, you deposit enough DNA on the rim. Saliva is another excellent source of DNA and if you lick your lips often, you increase the amount further. By contrast, if you just touch a cup, for example the person who poured you the tea, will (most likely) leave no DNA trace (LCN or otherwise).

Hampikian’s experiment suffers from design error:

1. He should have conducted the experiments double blind (it does not appear so).

2. Poor documentation: did the person drank from the can and the person collecting the can deliberately wiped the rim (the purpose of the experiment was known in advance) and then touched the knife.

3. Wet samples are notorious in this case. Why use soda cans if his objective is to duplicate the scene (from the crime scene video) where no soda cans were found?

I suspect that the objective of the experiment was to show that transfer does take place rather than to decide whether transfer can take place under the experimental conditions. Can somebody else duplicate the experiment and get the same results?

Peaks with low “RFU” are usually not counted as they are much smaller in height (on the chart recorder) and are therefore difficult to quantify. Further many of the peaks are associated with a “defective” peak (produced as a result of the PCR experimental errors)- stutter- which are difficult to identify if the peak is rather low in intensity. As long the peak is significantly above the signal-to-noise ratio threshold, it can be considered valid.

Posted by chami on 09/13/12 at 01:45 PM | #

@harrym:  Alternately, of course, Sollecito could have drooled on or licked the door handle, followed by a set of improbable transferrals from handle to glove to hook.

I would place any such eventuality, even if Sollecito had said he’d spat on Meredith’s door handle, as far lower in plausibility than the simple act of his grasping the hook very determinedly with his own hand.

Moreover, if secondary transfer really worked like that, they ought to have found Sollecito’s DNA (and plenty of it) in practically every sample tested.  In fact, they should have found Meredith’s DNA in every sample tested, too, for obvious reasons.

Posted by Stilicho on 09/13/12 at 06:56 PM | #


Your point is very well made. To give myself personal clarity I like to explicitly consider all possible ways of explaining the physical evidence. Then I like to spell out precisely the scenarios implied. Occasionally this yields a little more clarity.

For example, in discussing the luminol with Mr. Halkides, I asked him about the bloody footprint on the rug. I asked because Mr. Halkides had suggested that the luminol results were unlikely to be blood because they didnt test positively for blood. He didnt specify what he thought they might be. He suggested that Guede might have left the print on the rug when he was cleaning himself up after the murder.

The problem with this is that the are fairly clear bloody shoe prints leading out of the apartment. So Guede is implicitly suggested to have taken his shoes off in the bathroom to assist in the process of cleaning up, and then put them back on to leave.

He did this without leaving behind any DNA trace in the bathroom, and without leaving clear shoe prints in the bathroom but he did leave them outside.

Well its possible. But plausible? Really?

Posted by harrym on 09/13/12 at 10:46 PM | #

Thanks for your rigour and insight again James, very much appreciated.

Posted by Spencer on 09/13/12 at 11:50 PM | #

Everyone, we need your HELP!!!

Maybe you’d like to submit a review of Raffaele Sollecito’s book, or give 5 stars to the negative reviews that are online. Knox’s PR team is out in full force giving positive reviews to the book and spreading misinformation in the reviews and responses to the reviews. Amazon ranks reviews based on how helpful they’ve been rated (the star system) so the 1-star reviews and negative reviews of the book can easily be buried without your help.

PLEASE take a moment to post online rebuttals to the misinformation that is out there.

Also, the Wikipedia page “The Murder of Meredith Kercher” is very biased and needs work, so if you know how to edit Wikipedia that might be useful as well.

Posted by devorah on 10/18/12 at 02:20 AM | #

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