DNA mixture interpretation outside of the forensic laboratory? Apparently not yet.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has published a draft report entitled DNA Mixture Interpretation: A Scientific Foundation Review.

As NIST explains:

This report, currently published in draft form, reviews the methods that forensic laboratories use to interpret evidence containing a mixture of DNA from two or more people.

From https://www.nist.gov/dna-mixture-interpretation-nist-scientific-foundation-review

The problem of mixtures is more pronounced in DNA analysis than in analysis of other biometrics. You aren’t going to encounter two overlapping irises or two overlapping faces in the real world. (Well, not normally.)

You can certainly encounter overlapping voices (in a recorded conversation) or overlapping fingerprints (when two or more people touched the same item).

But there are methods to separate one biometric sample from another.

It’s a little more complicated when you’re dealing with DNA.

Distinguishing one person’s DNA from another in these mixtures, estimating how many individuals contributed DNA, determining whether the DNA is even relevant or is from contamination, or whether there is a trace amount of suspect or victim DNA make DNA mixture interpretation inherently more challenging than examining single-source samples. These issues, if not properly considered and communicated, can lead to misunderstandings regarding the strength and relevance of the DNA evidence in a case.

From the Abstract in https://doi.org/10.6028/NIST.IR.8351-draft%C2%A0

As some of you know, I have experience with “rapid DNA” instruments that provide a mostly-automated way to analyze DNA samples. Because these instruments are mostly automated and designed for use by non-scientific personnel, they are not able to analyze all of the types of DNA that would be analyzed by a forensic laboratory.

Therefore, this draft document is silent on the topic of rapid DNA, despite the fact that co-author Peter Vallone has years of experience in rapid DNA.

I am not a scientist, but in my view the absence of any reference to rapid DNA strongly suggests that it’s premature at this time to apply these instruments to DNA mixtures, such as rape cases in which both the assailant’s and the victim’s DNA are present in a sample.

Granted, there may be rape cases in which the DNA of the assailant may be present with no mixture.

You have to be REALLY careful before claiming that rapid DNA instruments can be used to wipe out the backlog of rape test kits. However, rapid DNA can be used to clear less complicated DNA cases so that the laboratories can concentrate on the more complex cases.

FindBiometrics didn’t find THIS biometric

On Monday, FindBiometrics posted its annual “year in review” survey of biometrics professionals, asking a number of questions.

FindBiometrics asked about face and finger, the most commonly used biometric modalities. But there were also questions that touched upon voice biometrics, behavioral biometrics, and several other biometric modalities.

You could echo the late Ed McMahon and say that FindBiometrics covered EVERY meaningful biometric modality in its 2021 year in review survey.

Allow me to play the Johnny Carson role and say that Ed was WRONG.

By Johnny_Carson_with_fan.jpg: Peter Martorano from Cleveland, Ohio, USAderivative work: TheCuriousGnome (talk) – Johnny_Carson_with_fan.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12750959

Or let me play the role of Steve Jobs and say that there’s ONE MORE THING.

By mylerdude – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=182423

So, what did FindBiometrics miss in its year in review? Only the “one more thing” that will revolutionize law enforcement forever.

Two announcements that changed law enforcement booking (in some states, anyway)

By Mauroesguerroto – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35919357

I’ve written about rapid DNA before (for example, after the Surfside building collapse). Rapid DNA is a process that automatically generates a DNA profile in less than two hours, as opposed to more manual-intensive procedures that could take much longer, especially when huge backlogs result in many months’ wait before DNA can be processed.

Rapid DNA cannot be used for every DNA application (commingled DNA is “an extremely critical challenge” and very difficult to process automatically), but there’s one instance in which DNA can technically be used, and that’s in the arrest/booking process.

By U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security) – http://www.ice.gov/news/galleries/index.htm#tab_stories, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20745424

What if, at the same time that an arrested person provides the state with his or her fingerprints, the person also provides a DNA sample?

Then, at the same time that the fingerprints are searched against local, statewide, and national databases to verify the person’s identity and (via “reverse searches”) see if the person is responsible for additional crimes, the DNA can also be searched against various databases.

However, even in states that authorized DNA collection for some arrests, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation wouldn’t allow rapid DNA profiles collected in a booking environment (as opposed to a crime laboratory) to be searched against its database.

Until February 2021.

Effective February 1, 2021, ANDE received approval from the FBI for its technology to be deployed in booking stations to support processing of DNA samples from qualifying arrestees and the automatic upload and searching of these DNA IDs against the National DNA Index System (NDIS). 

ANDE (formerly NetBio) is one of two manufacturers of rapid DNA systems. The other manufacturer, Thermo Fisher Scientific (formerly the independent company IntegenX), followed with its own announcement in July.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has approved Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Applied Biosystems RapidHIT ID DNA Booking System for use by law enforcement booking stations to automatically process, upload and search DNA reference samples from qualifying arrestees against the U.S. National DNA Index System (NDIS) CODIS database.

This means that today’s multimodal booking environments, which already support capture of friction ridges (fingerprints and palmprints), faces, and occasionally irises, can now also capture DNA.

Now I’ll grant that the continued expansion of mobile driver’s licenses to more states, as well as the final approval of the ISO/IEC 18013-5 standard, will have a greater impact on society at large. After all, the number of people with driver’s licenses is much larger than the number of people who get arrested. (Currently.)

But quadmodal booking biometrics deserves a mention. If we’re going to talk about quadmodal learning, let’s talk about quadmodal biometrics (finger, face, iris, DNA) also.

Maybe FindBiometrics will devote more time to DNA in its 2022 year in review.

OK, two MORE things

By the way, if you want more information about when the FBI authorizes rapid DNA and when it does not, as well as the standards that apply, check this page.

The FBI did not have anything to do with this video, which is tangential to the topic at hand, but I’m sharing it because Bob Mothersbaugh not only has a tasty guitar solo, but also a prominent singing part.

How the “CSI effect” can obscure the limited role of DNA-based investigative leads

People have been talking about the “CSI effect” for decades.

In short, the “CSI effect” is characterized as the common impression that forensic technologies can solve crimes (and must be used to solve crimes) in less than an hour, or within the time of a one-hour television show.

When taken to its extreme, juries may ask why the law enforcement agency didn’t use advanced technological tools to solve that jaywalking case.

Advanced technological tools like DNA, which has been commonly perceived to be the tool that can solve every single crime.

Well, that and video, because video is powerful enough to secure a conviction. But that’s another story.

Can DNA result in an arrest in a Denver homicide case?

A case in point is this story from KDVR entitled “DNA in murder case sits in Denver crime lab for 11 months.”

This is a simple statement of fact, and is not that surprising a statement of fact. Many crime labs are inundated with backlogs of DNA evidence and other forensic evidence that has yet to be tested. And these backlogs ARE creating difficulties in solving crimes such as rapes.

But when you read the article itself, the simple statement of fact is painted as an abrogation of responsibility on the part of law enforcement.

A father is making an emotional plea and putting up $25,000 of his own money to help find his son’s killer.

He is also asking the Problem Solvers to look into the time it has taken for DNA evidence to be tested in this case and others.

Tom O’Keefe said it’s taking too long to get answers and justice.

From this and other statements in the article, a picture emerges of an unsolved crime that can only be solved by the magical tool of DNA. If DNA is applied to this, just like they do on TV, arrests will be made and the killer will be convicted.

So why is it taking so long to do this?

Why is justice not being served?

KDVR is apparently not run by impassioned activists, but by journalists. And it is important from a journalistic perspective to get all sides of the story. Therefore, KDVR contacted the Denver Police Department for its side of the story.

The Denver Police Department has identified all parties involved, and the investigation shows multiple handguns were fired during this incident. While this complex case remains open, which limits details we can provide, we can verify that a significant amount of forensic work has been completed, but some remains. Investigators believe the pending forensic analysis can potentially support a weapon-related charge but will not further the ongoing homicide investigation.

OK, let’s grant that they’re not trying to identify an unknown assailant, since “all parties involved” are known.

But once that DNA is tested, isn’t that going to be the magic tool that provides the police with probable cause to arrest the killer?

Um, no.

Even IF the DNA evidence DOES happen to show a significant probability that an identifiable person committed the homicide, that in itself is not sufficient reason to arrest someone.

Why not?

Because you can’t arrest someone on DNA evidence alone.

DNA evidence can provide an investigative lead, but it has to be corroborated with other evidence in order to secure an arrest and a conviction. (Don’t forget that the evidence has to result in a conviction, and in most of the United States that requires that the evidence show beyond a reasonable doubt that the person committed the crime.)

Why was a serial killer in three European countries never brought to justice, despite overwhelming DNA evidence?

Reasonable schmeasonable.

If DNA ties someone to a crime, then the person committed the crime, right?

Let’s look at the story of a serial killer who terrorized Europe for over a decade, even though ample DNA evidence was found at each of the murder scenes, beginning with this one:

In 1993, a 62-year-old woman was found dead in her house in the town of Idar-Oberstein, strangled by wire taken from a bouquet of flowers discovered near her body.

Nobody had any information on what might have happened to Lieselotte Schlenger. No witnesses, no suspects, no signs of suspicious activity (except for the fact that she’d been strangled to death with a piece of wire, of course). But on a bright teacup near Schlenger, the police found DNA, the only clue to surface at all.

The case went cold, given that the only lead was the DNA of an unknown woman, and there was no match. Yet.

Eight years later, in 2001, there was a match when the same woman’s DNA was found at a murder scene of a strangulation victim in Freiburg, Germany. Police now knew that they were dealing with a serial killer.

But this time, the woman didn’t wait another eight years to strike again.

Five months after the second murder scene, her DNA showed up on a discarded heroin syringe, after a 7-year-old had stepped on it in a playground in Gerolstein. A few weeks later it showed up on an abandoned cookie in a burgled caravan near Bad Kreuznach, like she’d deliberately spat out a Jammy Dodger as a calling card. It was found in a break-in in an office in Dietzenbach, in an abandoned stolen car in Heilbronn, and on two beer bottles and a glass of wine in a burgled bar in Karlsruhe, like she’d robbed the place but stuck around for a few cheeky pints.

And her activities were not confined to Germany.

Over the apparent crime spree, her DNA was sprayed across an impressive 40 crime scenes in Austria, southern Germany, and France, including robberies, armed robberies, and murders.

In 2009, the case took an even more bizarre turn.

Police in France had discovered the burned body of a man, believed to be from an asylum seeker who went missing in 2002. During his application, the man had submitted fingerprints, which the police used to try and confirm his identity. Only, once again, they found the DNA of the phantom.

“Obviously that was impossible, as the asylum seeker was a man and the Phantom’s DNA belonged to a woman,” a spokesperson for the Saarbrücken public prosecutor’s office told Spiegel Online in 2009.

But how could this be?

DNA evidence had tied the woman, or man, or whatever, to six murders and numerous other crimes. There was plenty of evidence to identify the criminal.

What went wrong?

Well, in 2009 police finally figured out how DNA evidence had ended up at all of these crime scenes in three countries.

The man’s death led to an explanation of the case: there was no serial killer, and the DNA could be traced to a woman working in a packing center specializing in medical supplies. It was all down to DNA contamination.

Well, couldn’t that packing woman be convicted of the serial murders and other crimes, based upon the DNA evidence?

No, because there was no other evidence linking the woman to the crimes, and certainly “reasonable doubt” (or the European criminal justice equivalent) that the woman was also the dead male asylum seeker.

This is why DNA is only an investigative lead, and not evidence in and of itself.

But the Innocence Project always believes that DNA is authoritative evidence, right?

Even those who champion the use of DNA admit this.

If you look through the files of people exonerated by the Innocence Project, you find a common thread in many of them.

Much of the evidence gathered before the suspect’s original conviction indicated that the suspect was NOT the person who committed the crime. Maybe the family members testified that the suspect was at home the entire time and couldn’t have committed the crime in question. Or maybe the suspect was in another city.

However, some piece of evidence was so powerful that the person was convicted anyway. Perhaps it was eyewitness testimony, or perhaps something else, but in the end the suspect was convicted.

Eventually the Innocence Project got involved, and subsequent DNA testing indicated that the suspect was NOT the person who committed the crime.

This in and of itself didn’t PROVE that the person was innocent, but the DNA test aligned with much of the other evidence that had previously been collected. It was enough to cast a reasonable doubt on the conviction, allowing the improperly convicted suspect to go free.

But there are some cases in which the Innocence Project says that even DNA evidence is not to be trusted.

Negligence in the Baltimore Police Department’s crime lab tainted DNA analysis in an unknown number of criminal cases for seven years and raises serious questions about other forensic work in the lab, the Innocence Project said today in a formal allegation that the state is legally required to investigate.

DNA contamination, the same thing that caused the issues in Europe, also caused issues in Baltimore.

And there may be other explanations for how a person’s DNA ended up at a crime scene. Perhaps a police officer was careless and left his or her DNA at a crime scene. Perhaps someone was at a crime scene and left DNA evidence, even though that person had nothing to do with the crime.

In short, a high probability DNA match, in and of itself, proves nothing.

Investigative leads and reasonable doubt are very important considerations, even if they don’t fit into a one-hour TV show script.

Investigative leads and DNA booking stations

A July Bredemarket post on Facebook has garnered some attention in September.

I wanted to answer some questions about rapid DNA use in a booking station, how (and when) DNA is used in booking (arrests), what an “investigative lead” is, and whether acquiring DNA at booking is Constitutional.

(TL;DR on the last question is “yes,” per Maryland v. King.)

Are rapid DNA booking stations a Big Brother plot?

The post in question was a Facebook post to the Bredemarket Identity Firm Services Facebook group. I posted this way back in July, when Thermo Fisher Scientific became the second rapid DNA vendor (of two rapid DNA vendors; ANDE is the other) whose system was approved by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for use as a law enforcement booking station.

When I shared this on Facebook, I received some concerned comments:

“Big brother total control”

“Is this Constitutional??? Will the results of this test hold up in courtrooms???”

I’ll address the second question later: not just in regard to rapid DNA, but to DNA in general. At this point, however, I will go ahead and say that the use of rapid DNA in booking was authorized legislatively by the Rapid DNA Act of 2017. This was followed by over three years of procedural stuff until rapid DNA booking station use was authorized this year.

To accurately state what “rapid DNA booking station use” actually means, let me refer to the FBI’s language, starting with the purpose:

The FBI Laboratory Division has been working with the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division and the CJIS Advisory Policy Board (CJIS APB) Rapid DNA Task Force to plan the effective integration of Rapid DNA into the booking station process.

By way of definition, a “booking station” is a computer that processes individuals who are “booked,” or arrested. The FBI’s plan was that (when authorized by federal, state, or local law) when an arrested individual’s fingerprints were captured, the individual’s DNA would be captured at the same time. (Again, only when authorized.)

The use of the term “reference sample buccal (cheek) swab” is intentional. The FBI’s current development and validation efforts have been focused on the DNA samples obtained from known individuals (e.g., persons under arrest). Because known reference samples are taken directly from the individual, they contain sufficient amounts of DNA, and there are no mixed DNA profiles that would require a scientist to interpret them. For purposes of uploading or searching CODIS, Rapid DNA systems are not authorized for use on crime scene samples.

“CODIS,” by the way, is the Combined DNA Index System, a combination of federal, state, and local systems.

“Rapid DNA” is an accelerated, automated DNA method that can process DNA samples in less than two hours, as opposed to the more traditional DNA processes that can take a lot longer.

The FBI is NOT ready to use rapid DNA to solve crimes, although some local police agencies have chosen to do so. And until February of this year, the FBI was not ready to use rapid DNA in the booking process either.

So what has been authorized?

The Bureau recognizes that National DNA Index System (NDIS) approval of the Rapid DNA Booking Systems and training of law enforcement personnel using the approved systems are integral to ensuring that Rapid DNA is used in a manner that maintains the quality and integrity of CODIS and NDIS.

Rapid DNA Booking System(s) approved for use at NDIS by a law enforcement booking station are listed below.

ANDE 6C Series G (effective February 1, 2021)

RapidHIT™ ID DNA Booking System v1.0 (effective July 1, 2021) 

If you read the FBI rapid DNA page, you can find links to a number of forensic, security, and other standards that have to be followed when using rapid DNA in a booking environment.

But those aren’t the only restrictions on rapid DNA use.

Can ANY law enforcement agency use rapid DNA in booking?

Um, no.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (2013; see PDF), not all states authorize the taking of DNA after an arrest. As of 2013, 20 states did NOT allow the taking of DNA from individuals who had been arrested but not convicted. And of the 30 remaining states, some (such as Connecticut) only allowed taking of DNA for “serious felonies,” some (such as California) for all felonies, and various mixtures in between. Oklahoma, for example, only allowed taking of DNA for “aliens unlawfully present under federal immigration law.”

Now, of course, a rogue police officer could take your DNA when not legally authorized to do so. Then again, a rogue restaurant employee could put laxatives in your food; that doesn’t mean we outlaw laxatives.

An “investigative lead”

So let’s say that you’re arrested for a crime, and your state allows the taking of DNA for your crime at arrest, and your local law enforcement agency has a rapid DNA instrument.

Now let’s assume that your DNA is searched against a DNA database of unsolved crimes, and your DNA matches a sample from another crime. What happens next?

If there is a match, police will likely want to take a closer look.

Wait a minute. There’s a DNA match! Doesn’t that mean that the police can swoop in and arrest the individual, and the individual is immediately convicted?

Um, no. Stop trusting your TV.

It takes more than DNA to convict a person of a crime.

While DNA can provide an investigative lead, DNA in and of itself is not sufficient to convict an individual. The DNA evidence usually has to be supported by additional evidence.

Especially since there may be other explanations of how the DNA got there.

In 2011, Adam Scott’s DNA matched with a sperm sample taken from a rape victim in Manchester—a city Scott, who lived more than 200 miles away, had never visited. Non-DNA evidence subsequently cleared Scott. The mixup was due to a careless mistake in the lab, in which a plate used to analyze Scott’s DNA from a minor incident was accidentally reused in the rape case.

Then there’s the uncomfortable and inconvenient truth that any of us could have DNA present at a crime scene—even if we were never there. Moreover, DNA recovered at a crime scene could have been deposited there at a time other than when the crime took place. Someone could have visited beforehand or stumbled upon the scene afterward. Alternatively, their DNA could have arrived via a process called secondary transfer, where their DNA was transferred to someone else, who carried it to the scene.

But there is a DNA case that was (originally) puzzling. Actually, a whole bunch of DNA cases.

There is an interesting case, known as the Phantom of Heilbonn, that dates from 1993 in Austria, France and Germany. From that year the DNA of an unknown female was detected at crime scenes in those countries, including at six murder scenes, one of the victims being a female police officer from Heilbronn, Germany. Between 1993 and March 2009 the woman’s DNA was detected at 40 crime scenes which ranged from murder to burglaries and robberies. The DNA was found on items ranging from a biscuit to a heroin syringe to a stolen car.

Then it got really weird.

In March 2009 investigators discovered the same DNA on the burned body of a male asylum-seeker in France. Now this presented something of an anomaly: the corpse was male but the DNA was of a female.

You guessed it; it was the swabs themselves that were contaminated.

So a DNA match is just the start of an investigative process, but it could provide the investigative lead that eventually leads to the conviction of an individual.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I use the phrase “investigative lead” a lot when talking about DNA and about facial recognition. Trust me, it’s important.

But is the taking of DNA at booking Constitutional?

Obviously this is a huge question, because technical ability to do something does not automatically mean that you are Constitutionally authorized to do so. There is, after all, Fourth Amendment language protecting us against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Is the taking of DNA from arrestees who have not been convicted (assuming state law allows it) reasonable, or unreasonable?

Alonzo Jay King, Jr. had a vested interest in this question.

Alonzo Jay King Jr…was arrested in 2009 on assault charges. Before he was convicted of that crime, police took a DNA sample pursuant to Maryland’s new law allowing for such collections at the time of arrest in certain offenses….

I want to pause right here to make sure that the key point is highlighted. King, an arrestee who had not been convicted at the time of any crime, was compelled to provide evidence. At the time of arrest, collection of certain types of evidence (such as fingerprints) is “reasonable.” But collection of certain other types of evidence (such as a forced confession) is “unreasonable.”

So King’s DNA was taken and was searched against a Maryland database of DNA from unsolved crimes. You won’t believe what happened next! (Actually, you will.)

The DNA matched a sample from an unsolved 2003 rape case, and Mr. King was convicted of that crime.

Sentenced to life in prison, actually.

Wicomico County Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth L. Ireland said she requested the court impose a life sentence on King, not only because of his past criminal convictions, but also because it turned out that he was a friend of the victim’s family. She said this proved King was a continuing danger to the community.

Before you say, “well, if he was the rapist, he should be imprisoned, legal niceties notwithstanding,” think of the implications of that statement. The entire U.S. legal system is based upon the premise that it is better for a guilty person to mistakenly go free than for an innocent person to mistakenly be punished.

And if that doesn’t sink in…what if YOU were arrested and convicted unlawfully? What if a plate analyzing YOUR DNA wasn’t cleaned properly, and you were unjustly convicted of rape? Or what if a confession were coerced from YOU, and used to convict you?

So King’s question was certainly important, regardless of whether or not he actually committed the rape for which he was convicted.

King therefore appealed on Fourth Amendment grounds, the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned his conviction (PDF), and the State of Maryland brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 (Maryland v. King). In a close 5-4 decision (PDF) in which both conservatives and liberals were on both sides of the argument, the Court ruled that the taking of DNA from arrestees WAS Constitutional.

But that wasn’t the end of the argument, because a new case arose in the state of California. But the California Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that the practice was allowed in that state.

So the taking of DNA at booking is not only authorized (in some states, for some charges), it’s also Constitutional. (Although the Supreme Court’s opinion is still widely debated.)

So anyone who gets arrested for a felony in my home state of California should be ready for a buccal (cheek) swab.

Maryland will soon deal with privacy stakeholders (and they CAN’T care about the GYRO method)

Just last week, I mentioned that the state of Utah appointed the Department of Government Operations’ first privacy officer. Now Maryland is getting into the act, and it’s worth taking a semi-deep dive into what Maryland is doing, and how it affects (or doesn’t affect) public safety.

By François Jouffroy – Christophe MOUSTIER (1994), Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=727606

According to Government Technology, the state of Maryland has created two new state information technology positions, one of which is the State Chief Privacy Officer. Because government, I will refer to this as the SCPO throughout the remainder of this post. If you are referring to this new position in verbal conversation, you can refer to the “Maryland skip-oh.” Or the “crab skip-oh.”

From https://teeherivar.com/product/maryland-is-for-crabs/. Fair use. Buy it if you like it. Virginians understand the origins of the phrase.

Governor Hogan announced the creation of the SCPO position via an Executive Order, a PDF of which can be found here.

Let me call out a few provisions in this executive order.

  • A.2. defines “personally identifiable information,” consisting of a person’s name in conjunction with other information, including but not limited to “[b]iometric information including an individual’s physiological or biological characteristics, including an individual’s deoxyribonucleic acid.” (Yes, that’s DNA.) Oh, and driver’s license numbers also.
  • At the same time, A.2 excludes “information collected, processed, or shared for the purposes of…public safety.”
  • But on the other hand, A.5 lists specific “state units” covered by certain provisions of the law, including both The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and the Department of State Police.
  • The reason for the listing of the state units is because every one of them will need to appoint “an agency privacy official” (C.2) who works with the SCPO.

There are other provisions, including the need for agency justification for the collection of personally identifiable information (PII), and the need to provide individuals with access to their collected PII along with the ability to correct or amend it.

But for law enforcement agencies in Maryland, the “public safety” exemption pretty much limits the applicability of THIS executive order (although other laws to correct public safety data would still apply).

Therefore, if some Maryland sheriff’s department releases an automated fingerprint identification system Request for Proposal (RFP) next month, you probably WON’T see a privacy advocate on the evaluation committee.

But what about an RFP released in 2022? Or an RFP released in a different state?

Be sure to keep up with relevant privacy legislation BEFORE it affects you.

Three recent #DNA stories

By Zephyris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15027555

Over the last few days, I’ve run across three stories that deal with two aspects of DNA collection: familial DNA, and DNA mixtures.

Familial DNA

(This case was mentioned on Forensics and Law in Focus, a recommended read for all sorts of forensic techniques.)

Of all of the biometrics, DNA has a property that the others don’t: the similarity of DNA between family members. Someone finding my child’s fingerprints won’t necessarily be able to find me, and even someone who finds my child’s face won’t necessarily be able to find me.

But 84 year old Raymand Vannieuwenhoven is on trial for a 1976 murder because of DNA similarities in families.

Vannieuwenhoven is accused in the July 9, 1976, murders of a Green Bay couple who was camping at McClintock Park in the Town of Silver Cliff. David Schuldes, 25, and Ellen Matheys, 24, were shot and killed at the campground….

A DNA profile obtained through evidence was already on file with the State Crime Lab, according to previous testimony….

Baldwin explained how a breakthrough came in 2018 when Parabon Nanolabs of Virginia developed new technology to examine DNA evidence, which could provide certain genetic characteristics of possible suspects through DNA….

On Dec. 21, 2018, Parabon contacted Baldwin and informed him that a possible suspect was found through the DNA testing. He said they gave him a Green Bay-area family—the Vannieuwenhovens—that had four sons and four grandsons who possibly could be a match.

The detectives then had to test the relatives and compare their DNA to the crime scene DNA. But not ALL of the relatives: this was solely used as an investigative lead, and there was no point in testing the grandsons for a 1976 murder. Raymand was one of those whose DNA was collected (by having him lick an envelope to seal it), and the probabilities indicated a match.

Obviously this technique has controversy in some quarters, since the family members who originally provided the DNA had no idea that it would be used to arrest (or, in some cases, exonerate) another family member in this way. But the technique is being used.

By the way, Vannieuwenhoven was found guilty, and the 84 year old may be sentenced to life in prison.

DNA mixtures

The other story concerns what can be found when a DNA sample is collected. The DNA sample may contain a lot of things, from a lot of people.

With improvements in DNA testing methods, we don’t need much DNA to make a profile and see perhaps if I am a likely contributor to that sample or if you have contributed — even if you never touched the table directly. That level of DNA profiling is useful for many different types of crimes, but also brings up the issue of relevance. We aren’t explaining how DNA got to a location. 

As an example, a single item at a crime scene may include the DNA of the person who committed the crime, the crime victim, an innocent bystander who touched the area in question before the crime was committed, and (if the police officer was careless) the police officer investigating the crime.

Now you have to look at the DNA sample that was collected. With DNA mixtures, this gets tough.

If single-source DNA is like basic arithmetic and a two-person mixture is like algebra, then a complicated mixture is like calculus!

The quotes above are from John Butler of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who has a concern about how all of the different laboratories interpret DNA mixtures. Ideally, all labs should work together to have a consistent, verifiable way to interpret these mixtures.

We wanted to see if there were established methodologies that worked better than others when tested, and where those limits were being drawn. What we found is that there is not enough publicly available data to enable an external and independent assessment of the degree of reliability of DNA mixture interpretation practices.

NIST, as it does in other areas, seeks to advance the science, and is urging stakeholders to work together to do so.

But wait; there’s more on DNA mixtures!

While NIST has been conducting the work above, the National Institute of Justice have been funding other work.

Michael Marciano, research assistant professor and director for research in the Forensic and National Security Sciences Institute (FNSSI) within the College of Arts and Sciences, and Jonathan Adelman, research assistant professor in FNSSI, have invented a novel hybrid machine learning approach (MLA) to mixture analysis (U.S. patent number 10,957,421). Their method combines the strengths of current computational and expert analysis approaches with those in data mining and artificial intelligence.

Marciano and Adelman received funding from the National Institute of Justice to further develop their idea in 2014. Although this intellectual property has not been fully developed for commercial use, they are pursuing funding to transition the technology. Once this is done, they are hopeful that the new method will be used throughout the law enforcement and criminal justice communities, specifically by forensic DNA scientists and the legal community.

Actually, once the intellectual property has been developed for commercial use, it will NOT be used THROUGHOUT the law enforcement and criminal justice communities. It will be used by PORTIONS of the law enforcement and criminal justice communities, while OTHERS within the community will use commercial products from competitors.

Commercialization of a product actually works AGAINST universal acceptance, except in very limited cases. Take commercialization of fingerprinting products. As Chapter 6 of The Fingerprint Sourcebook details, independent research was performed in four separate countries (France, Japan, the UK, and the US) which, after commercialization, led to three (now two) separate fingerprinting products: NEC’s product from Japanese research, and IDEMIA’s product from separate French (Morpho) and United States (Printrak) research. This initial research, combined with subsequent research that led to additional products, led to an interoperability issue, despite efforts from NIST to advance greater inoperability.

Will NIST have to do the same thing to reconcile competing DNA mixture analysis methods?

The Surfside building collapse may require a redefinition of “real-time” regarding rapid DNA

I’ve previously noted that the definition of “real-time” can vary depending upon the use case. In the automated fingerprint identification systems world of the late 1990s, a definition of “real-time” in minutes was appropriate, but for the computer aided dispatch world, “real-time” was (and is) measured in seconds.

“Hi, SCC folks, welcome to Printrak. You’re joining a company that sells REAL TIME AFIS that delivers results within one minute! Aren’t you impressed?”

“Hello, new corporate overlords. We provide computer aided dispatch systems that send police, fire, and medical personnel to crime scenes and emergency sites as soon as possible. If our CAD systems took AN ENTIRE MINUTE to dispatch personnel, PEOPLE WOULD DIE. We use really powerful computers to get personnel dispatched in a second. Enjoy your real time AFIS…amateurs.”

I also mentioned a two-hour “real-time” use case, which is (conservatively) the time it takes a rapid DNA instrument to do its work.

The rapid DNA vendors provide machines that can perform an automated DNA analysis in 90 minutes, a vast improvement over traditional DNA especially when existing backlogs are taken into account. And for the most part, 90 minutes is fine.

But the Surfside tragedy illustrates how 90 minutes may not be adequate.

There’s already been coverage of how rapid DNA can be, and is being, used to identify victims of the Surfside building collapse. NPR ran an article on this, and WFLA aired a news report.

To date I have not found a public source that lists how many rapid DNA machines are being used in the investigation, but let’s do a little math and see how many rapid DNA instruments could possibly be required.

Assume a conservative two hours is required to fully analyze each DNA sample and determine the possible identity of a deceased victim. Further assume that because of the importance of this case, the DNA instruments are being operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No going home at 5:00 pm in this case, which is receiving international attention.

Now let’s look at the numbers. As of 2:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time today, 20 deaths are confirmed, and 128 people are still unaccounted for.

What happens if there is a sudden horrific discovery of 100 deceased? How long would it take to identify all of them?

If 3 rapid DNA instruments are available, and each is processing 12 DNA samples in a 24 hour day, then it would take about three days to run all the samples through the DNA instruments.

Three very long days for the families of the potential victims who are waiting for news.

So the authorities may need to move to plan B.

The Indian River County Sheriff’s Office has been notified it might be asked to respond with the agency’s rapid DNA test machines to the deadly condominium collapse in Surfside, Sheriff Eric Flowers said….

“They put our folks on standby last weekend to respond if theirs got overwhelmed,” Flowers said. “At this point, they’ve not called for that, but our folks are ready and our machines are ready that if they call us we will respond to assist in DNA identification.”

Yes, in this case you can throw more machines at a problem to solve it, provided that you have the proper personnel to support them. Luckily, the rapid DNA instruments themselves do not need a forensic background to operate them, since they are designed to operate in an automated fashion. However, if rapid DNA analysis has an inconclusive result, then additional traditional DNA analysis will have to be performed which will require forensic expertise. (That, however, is outside of the scope of this post.)

By Zephyris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15027555

So where do we stand after Surfside?

Previous rapid DNA identification efforts have just involved one person or less than a dozen people. But this case, in which potentially over 100 people may need to be identified, is truly pushing the limits of the technology.

(Come to think of it, it’s similar to how video analytic analysis was pushed to the limits by the Boston Marathon bombings. But I digress.)

And sadly, there have already been instances in which that many people, or more people, needed to be identified. Imagine, for example, the crash of a large airplane. Or worse still, the crash of two large airplanes into a skyscraper.

And now this 90 minute response time suddenly doesn’t seem so fast any more.

DNA reunions of families don’t just happen at the U.S.-Mexico border

Dr. Michael Bowers shared an article about DNA-ProKids.

From the article:

DNA-ProKids works with governments in Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Paraguay, Thailand, Brazil, India and Malaysia….

The programme uses our unique genetic footprint to trace thousands of missing children around the world. Some have been stolen from their parents and trafficked for sex or as slave labour, others sold in illegal adoptions, and some lost in hospital mix-ups….

The article includes several stories, including one of a woman who was drugged and her baby taken from her.

Guatemala’s government, which uses the DNA-ProKids programme, contacted the police who were able to find the baby using DNA within 48 hours. The thief, who was wearing a mask because of the pandemic, could not be identified.

Read more here, or visit the DNA-ProKids website.

Quantifying the costs of wrongful incarcerations

As many of you already know, the Innocence Project is dedicated to freeing people who have been wrongfully incarcerated. At times, the people are freed after examining or re-examining biometric evidence, such as fingerprint evidence or DNA evidence.

The latter evidence was relevant in the case of Uriah Courtney, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping and rape based upon eyewitness testimony. At the time of Courtney’s arrest, DNA testing did not return any meaningful results. Eight years later, however, DNA technology had advanced to the point where the perpetrator could be identified—and, as the California Innocence Project noted, the perpetrator wasn’t Uriah Courtney.

I’ve read Innocence Project stories before, and the one that sticks most in my mind was the case of Archie Williams, who was released (based upon fingerprint evidence) after being imprisoned for a quarter century. At the time that Williams’ wrongful conviction was vacated, Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project, stated, “There is no way to quantify the loss and pain he has endured.”

But that doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried to (somewhat) quantify the loss.

In the Uriah Courtney case, while it’s impossible to quantify the loss to Courtney himself, it is possible to quantify the loss to the state of California. Using data from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office 2018-19 annual costs per California inmate, the California Innocence Project calculated a “cost of wrongful incarceration” of $649,624.

One can quibble with the methodology—after all, the 2018-19 costs presumably overestimate the costs of incarcerating someone who was released from custody on May 9, 2013—but at least it illustrates that a cost of wrongful incarceration CAN be calculated. Add to that the costs of prosecuting the wrong person (including jury duty daily fees), and the costs can be quantified.

To a certain extent.