October 19, 2010

Through the Motivation Report – Part III

This post is the third and final part of a sample chapter from my upcoming book

The Monster of Perugia – The Framing of Amanda Knox

But, enough nonsense; back to Tweedledee and Tweedledum. While Alice hoped to escape from the looking glass world she had entered, Tweedledee began to recite a splendid poem, The Walrus and the Carpenter:
“The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright—
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.”

The Motivation reveals a lack of understanding of the forensic science evidence that is every bit as breathtaking as if the sun was shining in the middle of the night. If the Motivation was graded as if it were science homework, (and I graded a couple thousand of those back in graduate school), it would flunk. When such crazy absurdities came from the Walrus and the Carpenter, they were amusing. When they appear in a court opinion that ruled that innocent people spend much of their lives in prison, they are anything but.

Let’s Pretend

“I wish I could tell you half the things Alice used to say, beginning with her favorite phrase ‘Let’s pretend.’” Through the Looking Glass

The Motivation doesn’t actually use the phrase “let’s pretend” when it’s about to reach a wrong conclusion, instead, it uses phrases like “could be” or “may have been.” Look for them as you read. The timing of a witness “could be” within a certain window even though that was an extreme interpretation. The luminol spots “may have been” blood, even though every one of the tests for blood came out negative. Coincidentally, each time phrases like that were used the conclusions reached were bad for Amanda. The rule seems to have been that if something “could be,” no matter how improbable, as long as it supported the guilt of the defendants it had to be positively disproved. If it could not be disproved, it was accepted as ironclad fact and became a building block in the peculiar, sequential logic system used by the Court.

To compile these building blocks the Motivation embraced conclusions that not only accepted the tales of the prosecution’s forensics witnesses, but which even went far beyond what was testified to. It is clear from reading this document that the standard adhered to by the Court of Assizes was not “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” the supposed standard in Italian, as well as American law, but the furthest thing from that. The deck was hopelessly stacked against Amanda and Raffaele. Why?

Experts? We Don’t Need No Stinking Experts

As in many places, the polizia’s forensics people acted as agents of the prosecution, rather than as neutral discoverers of facts. This fundamental conflict of interest was discussed in Chapter Five – Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of Forensic Science. It is a problem in many justice systems, not just in Italy. The conflicts that this advocacy role creates in Italy are more serious, however, because of the presumption of authority that is afforded to the Polizia by the courts.

During the trial the defense requested independent reviews of important aspects of the forensic data by outside experts. The Court rejected those requests. Its reasoning on this was summarized briefly in the Motivation, concluding with a remarkable pair of sequential statements, as follows:

“…an expert report on the computers of the accused was requested, the memories of which were found to have been damaged at the time of the analysis of the supports carried out by the Postal Police, such that the hard drives could not be duplicated/cloned for subsequent examination.

The Court disallowed all the requests, on the grounds that the additional expert reports requested did not appear to be necessary, since the very ample dialectic contribution from the expert witnesses of the private parties offered sufficient material to take a position without additional expertise.”
Motivation, P-21

The Polizia “experts” that attempted to analyze the computer memories totally destroyed 3 out of 4 of them, a symptom of either profound incompetence or deliberate sabotage of evidence that may have contradicted the prosecution’s theories. Yet the Court attempted to gloss over this fact and glibly dismissed any need for outside review of this, or any other forensic evidence. Experts? We don’t need no stinking experts!

Bathroom Traces

Amanda Knox’s DNA was found in Amanda Knox’s bathroom. So… what? There is nothing surprising or incriminating about that. My DNA is in my bathroom. Grams of it. Your DNA is in your bathroom. Milligrams, maybe, but still vast amounts by forensic DNA standards. People naturally shed DNA, especially in places like bathrooms which probably have the highest concentrations of shed DNA of any room in the house. How could the Court possibly come up with a sinister inference from Amanda’s DNA being present in her own bathroom? As follows.

The Court recites the testimony that it is impossible to tell when DNA traces were deposited, whether days apart, or simultaneously. It recounts that since it was Amanda and Meredith’s shared bathroom “the presence of mixed traces seemed to be a completely normal circumstance, and had no significance.” P – 278 It mentions that the same piece of blotting paper was used to collect multiple samples, so the mixing of DNA is even less surprising. Slop it all together, it’s just a murder investigation. All well, good, and mostly correct.

Now prepare for the logical back flip. “The Court, however, believes that the presence of the biological trace specimens that were found is of great importance.” P – 278 How is this incredible conclusion reached? Because Amanda said that when she left the house, the bathroom was clean. Astoundingly, the Court equates a “clean” bathroom with a DNA-free bathroom.

“…it  should  be  recalled  that  Amanda  Knox,  in  the  course  of  her  own  examination   (questioning),   declared   that   when   she   left   the   house   on   Via   della   Pergola   on   the   afternoon   of   November   1st,   the   bathroom   was   clean.” P - 278

Never mind that the PCR amplification method can make a cup of DNA out of a nanogram. Never mind that this is one of the most sensitive tests in existence (too sensitive in some respects). The Court actually reasoned that a “clean” bathroom would be without any trace of DNA, so that any that was found there must have been deposited at a later time. This is one of the most preposterously wrong scientific conclusions I’ve ever seen. Amanda had simply testified that there wasn’t blood in the bathroom the afternoon before the murder, but she saw it the morning after. It was only in this sense that the bathroom was “clean.” From this error, the Court leaped to the conclusion that Amanda’s DNA must have been deposited when Amanda “washed her hands which were stained with Meredith’s blood….” P – 281

The Court transformed the simple, irrelevant, ordinary fact that Amanda’s DNA was in her own bathroom into “proof” of her washing the victim’s blood off her hands. If you have any lingering doubts as to whether or not this Court was biased towards guilt, you need look no further for the answer. With this kind of reasoning, every single defendant before the Court would be found guilty.

With this conclusion in hand, the Court goes on to read minute details of blood traces as if they were tea leaves, pretending to draw complex logical inferences from details about the shapes of blood drops. These meaningless inferences are just distractions to muddy the waters after the big lie has been told. Remember that not one single fingerprint of Amanda’s was found in Meredith’s bedroom. No footprints in blood, no handprints, no DNA, absolutely nothing.

This pattern is followed repeatedly in the Motivation. First the common sense interpretation of the evidence is presented and pretentiously considered. Then some additional consideration is tossed in and common sense is discarded and replaced with a conclusion that supports guilt. But the additional considerations don’t even come close to trumping common sense. They are nothing but shams, lame excuses for deciding the way the Court wanted to decide. The pattern of bias against the defense is beyond obvious, it is blatant.

Luminol Glow

Blood catalyzes a reaction in a forensic test chemical called luminol, causing it to emit a fluorescent glow. Many other materials trigger the same reaction, yielding a glow that is indistinguishable from that caused by blood (see Chapter Six, Methods of the Polizia PseudoScientifica). For that reason spots that glow with luminol are further tested to see if the reaction was triggered by blood or some innocuous household item like bleach.

Those additional tests for blood came out negative, indicating that whatever it was that catalyzed the glow of luminol, it wasn’t blood. Those tests showed that the spots, which formed no particular pattern or trail, were caused by irrelevant, unidentified crud on the floor, having no probative value as evidence. They were the kind of remnant substance results that might be expected from any old house being subjected to such scrutiny. But here is the Court’s reasoning:

“But it must be noted that the negative result for blood does not necessarily indicate that no blood was present. The result may have been negative because there was not sufficient material to indicate the presence of blood.” P - 282

“…may have been negative…” This is one of the variations on “could be.” In fact, if there was enough blood present to catalyze a luminol glow, that material should have tested positive for blood if it was, in fact, blood. The negative results for blood, on every, single spot, means that they were, to an overwhelming probability, not comprised of blood. The court ignored those results to obtain the conclusion that the luminol spots were produced by blood. Why?

Superwitness Protection Program

One of the difficulties Amanda and Raffaele have had in their defense is that their alibis are that they were together at his apartment the night of the murder. The prosecution has dealt with this alibi simply by charging both of them. They can’t vouch for each other because they were both charged.

A friend of Raffaele, Jovana Popovic confirmed their alibi by testifying that she saw them both at his apartment twice that evening, at around 6:00 PM and later at around 8:40 PM. This strongly supports their statements that they were there.

To attack Amanda and Raffaele’s alibis, the Court first cites the opinion of the prosecution’s computer experts that “… at around 21:15 PM, all interaction with Raffaele Sollecito’s computer stops.” This is the opinion of the same computer experts that totally destroyed three out of the four disk drives that they attempted to analyze (see Chapter Four, Nineteen Eighty-Four – Perugia Style).

But the most outrageous assault on the alibis of Amanda and Raffaele came from what the prosecution called “superwitnesses.” There was nothing super about them. Their reliability in any honest court would have been highly suspect. Not in this one.

“Mr. Curatolo said he lives in the street in the area around Piazza Grimana and Corso Garibaldi: a way of life different from the usual one but not for this his testimony may be considered unreliable as this way of living one’s life does not affect ones’ ability to perceive events and be able to report them.” P - 79

Incredibly, the testimony of this street person is given added weight because two vendors in the area testified that he did, in fact, inhabit a bench there, and spent the night on it. Not only that, but Curatolo actually states that he saw Amanda and Raffaele, out on the street in front of their home for hours, during which time the murder took place. If you believe Curatolo, he actually provides them with an alibi.

Curatolo states that they were on the street between 9 PM and “before midnight.” Meredith’s murder took place at about 9:30 PM. To avoid this inconvenience, the court dissects the expression “before midnight” until it is watered down enough to just allow time for the murder to take place, if you move the time of death to as late as possible. It is difficult to convey the sheer craziness of this portion of the Motivation, taking a street person with obvious issues seriously and carefully dissecting his testimony, which was supported by no other witnesses. Read it to get a better idea. Any genuinely skeptical jury would be alternating between eye rolling and laughter, yet the Court takes it as gospel truth, and even then has to twist and turn it to support guilt.

The second “superwitness,” a shop owner named Quintavalle, claimed to have seen Amanda and Raffaele in his shop the morning after the murder at a time before they said they were up and about. His coworker also testified that she was there the entire time and was certain that she did not see them.

“Witness Quintavalle, at the hearing on March 21, 2009, was asked many questions to uncover elements of information that would be useful in verifying his reliability. This was mainly because though his meeting with Amanda occurred early in the  morning (at 7:45 am) on November 2, 2007, he only made a statement about it in November 2008 and did not mention it earlier, even when Inspector Volturno questioned him a few days after Meredith’s murder..

This Court deems that the testimony of Quintavalle is reliable. It was discovered that Inspector Volturno did not ask Quintavalle if, on the morning of November 2, he saw Amanda Knox in his shop.” P-83

Quintavalle didn’t say a word about what he claimed to have seen for nearly a year, and only then when a reporter persuaded him. Instant fame and something to talk about. Yet his failure to mention something that was obviously important to the investigation was simply brushed aside. True, he was interviewed in detail by the Polizia shortly after the crime, and didn’t say a word about seeing the accused, but he hadn’t specifically specifically been asked whether he had seen Amanda, (who had just been arrested with tremendous fanfare). One can almost hear the judges exchanging high fives when they thought this one up. “Hah! They didn’t ask that exact, specific question! We have an excuse to believe him!” Again, obviously questionable testimony was accepted as solid fact because it supported guilt.

The White Queen of DNA

Of all the characters in Through the Looking Glass, the white chess queen is my favorite.

“I can't believe THAT!” said Alice.
“Can't you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There's no use trying,” she said: “one CAN'T believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven't had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Through the Looking Glass

The White Queen of DNA may well be Dr. Patrizia Stefanoni of the Polizia Scientifica, who appears to believe impossible things about her laboratory, her skills, and her results while testifying in court. On the basis of that testimony, (and going beyond it as needed to establish guilt), the court accepted a number of impossible things as fact. The details of the forensic DNA analysis were discussed in Chapters Seven and Eight, and won’t be repeated here. This section is confined to observations about just a few impossible things Stefanoni has believed, meriting the title of the White Queen of DNA.

Perhaps the most clearly impossible thing that Patrizia Stefanoni has believed is that there has never been contamination of any DNA evidence in her lab.

“In response to a specific question on this point, Dr. Stefanoni declared that she had been working as a biologist for seven years, had always used the same methodology, and had never heard that any problem of contamination of exhibits had occurred.” P – 220

The forensic DNA literature has many careful discussions about how to combat contamination. Entire laboratory designs are built around efforts to minimize it, particularly for low copy number (hyper-amplified) work.  The literature is not full of claims that sample and equipment contamination are no big deal.

“The gloves were “changed, in the course of the search, every time an object was touched that was particularly soaked with blood, and when it was obvious that the gloves would be soiled; ‘…otherwise, it is just an ordinary object… I can move it, but this does not lead to my DNA remaining, let’s say, attached.’” P - 203

By her own account, Stefanoni didn’t bother to change gloves between handling most evidentiary items, but only if one happened to be “particularly soaked” in blood. Little effort was made to prevent the transfer of DNA from item to item other than to avoid getting large smears of blood on them. From this statement it even appears that not even blood stained objects merited a glove change, an item actually had to be “particularly soaked.” The video documentation of evidence collection clearly shows item after item being handled without any changes in gloves.

Stefanoni’s belief that contamination is only a problem when liquid materials are present had a practical outcome. She did little or nothing to avoid contamination as long as there wasn’t a visible, liquid, blood stain.

“She related how it was possible for her to have touched different findings with the same pair of gloves, and in particular, the bra, first, and then, the underwear. However, she pointed out that, in this specific case, as the video images show (cf. video footage), the part of the bra that was touched was not soiled by any blood.” P – 203

No need to change gloves as long as video footage reviewed later doesn’t show wet blood on that particular part of the specimen…. Think about this statement coming from someone who has never heard of contamination in her laboratory. It is a self fulfilling prophecy of sort. She does not worry about it, does not take precautions to prevent it, does not test for it, and does not acknowledge it when it happens. It is a happy sort of world, but it is not competent science.

“…she received that knife, Exhibit 36, in a cardboard box and that it was delivered to the laboratory where it was photographed and analyzed. It did not appear to her that the container of the knife was sterile; she specified however that ‘not even samples are sterile…” P – 214

The Court accepted Stefanoni’s reasoning that while the cardboard box the infamous kitchen knife was shipped in was not “sterile” nothing we have is sterile so, hey, no worries. But “sterility” isn’t the issue. The knife was collected and conveyed to the Questura, it sat on a desk for a while, was put into an ordinary envelope, put inside the box, and shipped to Stefanoni’s lab in Rome. The question isn’t whether the box was sterile, but whether the box, the detective’s desk, the envelope, or the laboratory might have been contaminated by traces of Meredith’s blood.

Numerous other items of evidence, many of which were contaminated with Meredith’s blood, were handled by these same people. No evidence bag, no clean gloves, nothing remotely resembling the conditions demanded of evidence handling for specimens to be subjected to low template DNA testing (see Chapter Eight, Canary in the LCN DNA Mine). The knife was handled like an ordinary household implement (which it was, actually), rather than a critical item in a murder investigation that was destined to be subjected to low template DNA testing. Yet Stefanoni once again believed the impossible, that there was no chance that it could have been contaminated.

Stefanoni wasn’t making a real effort to avoid contaminating the evidence, she was trying to keep from getting blood on her hands.

Dust Devils

Stefanoni’s idea that DNA contamination only happens by transfer of liquid can be easily tested. Do you have a cat? If not, hunt one down, they are everywhere. Now pet it. Look at your hand. It will be crawling with cat fur, transferred to your hand by the simple mechanism of static electricity. This transfer happens between objects all the time, cat or no cat. It will be pointed out that hair itself does not contain DNA, but hair roots and plenty of other fine particles do, and they are transferred by the same means. You can be assured that you now have cat DNA on your hand. Once transferred these fine particles are held in place by those same static charges, and by additional forces called Van der Waals attractions.

I’m pretty familiar with these kinds of material transfers because it was a constant problem back when I studied the surface energetics of composite fibers. You could take all kinds of precautions to prevent contamination of the fiber, a clean surface being critical for measuring its properties, and then a static charge would develop and a cloud of dust particles, debris, and hairs would leap inches to the surface you were trying to test. There are even businesses based on selling equipment to prevent contamination by solid particles transferred by static. That equipment is especially important in the printing industry, which generates a lot of static.

If Dr. Stefanoni were content to practice DNA forensic work by established standards, her impossible claims of perfection might be merely troubling, a prideful boast that makes you think twice before believing anything she says. But her test methods on Raffaele’s kitchen knife went so far beyond the pale of established technique that, combined with her boast of never having contamination issues it is clear that the White Queen of DNA either does not understand what she is doing, or has an agenda, and justice isn’t on it.

Clasping at Straws

Forty seven days and nights after the investigation began, most of the evidence had been analyzed and not a single shred of it suggested the presence of either Amanda or Raffaele in the room where Meredith Kercher was murdered. Nothing. This was a serious problem for the prosecution and Polizia because, as former FBI agent Steve Moore says, “absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” The absence of evidence showed that Amanda and Raffaele were simply not present at the crime. The polizia investigation that was intended to drum up the evidence to support Mignini’s theory of satanic sex cults had, instead, found proof that the accused were innocent. So, what to do?

Putting their thinking caps on, someone in the Polizia or prosecution remembered that they hadn’t bothered to retrieve the bra clasp. It had been photographed and recorded on videos during the documentation of the murder scene, so it’s existence had long been known. Over a period of 47 days it had moved from place to place in the room where the murder took place, which was visited by an unknown number of unknown investigators; no records exist of how many were there, what their identities were, or what actions they took in the apartment at Via della Pergola during those 47 days. Then Stefanoni went on a mission.

“…both he and I were going in, let’s say, in the room, for the sole purpose, at this stage, to look for the clasp.” Patrizia Stefanoni, P - 204

They went to Via della Pergola for the specific purpose of retrieving that one piece of evidence.

“The small piece of material with hooks was mentioned as a particularly relevant find from the second inspection, on December 18, 2007.” P - 191

Particularly relevant is right. DNA profiling was performed on the clasp and, in contrast to all other materials retrieved from the crime scene, including the bra itself, it showed a trace that was compatible with Raffaele. True, there were multiple, other profiles present (see Chapter Six), and the evidentiary value was hopelessly compromised by the 47 days on the floor, but the prosecution at last had something to point at. Stefanoni’s targeted mission to recover the clasp had finally found evidence that appeared to tie her quarry to the crime, with luck that was either miraculous – or contrived.

An interesting convergence of events supports the latter.  Apparently after the same search that turned up the clasp, a photo was leaked from the polizia files that showed a Harry Potter book, in German, at Amanda’s apartment. This news leak cast doubt on Amanda’s statement that she and Raffaele had read Potter in German at his apartment the night of the murder. The Times Online ran such an article on December 19, 2007, for instance: "The Harry Potter clue was 'another blow to the credibility of their alibi' the paper said." (Correction: An earlier version of this post listed the book leakage date as Dec. 16. It actually seems to have been the same search, taking place on the 18th.)

The thing is, there were actually two German language Potter books, one of which was clearly shown by evidence photos to be at Raffaele’s apartment, confirming Amanda’s statement and alibi. The Polizia knew this, the press didn’t. This inaccurate and illegal press leak, which generated wide press coverage saying that their alibi had been demolished, was committed just two days before the miraculous bra clasp was retrieved. This is undeniable evidence that elements within the Perugian justice system were willing to break laws in their effort to convict Amanda and Raffaele at the same time that the clasp was recovered.

The Year of Living Backwards

The White Queen in Through the Looking Glass lived backwards, a confusing state of affairs.

“’There's the King's Messenger. He’s in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn't even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all.’
‘Suppose he never commits the crime?’ said Alice.
‘That would be all the better, wouldn’t it?’ the Queen said, as she bound the plaster round her finger with a bit of ribbon.
Alice felt there was no denying THAT. ‘Of course it would be all the better.’ she said: ‘but it wouldn’t be all the better his being punished.’”

Like the King’s Messenger, Amanda and Raffaele spent their first year in prison being punished before being charged with a crime. The polizia hung her picture beside convicted mafia dons long before the trial began. And like the White Queen living backwards, Dr. Stefanoni knows the answers to her tests before she begins to perform them.

Defense experts pointed out that forensic scientists should not know the DNA profiles of the suspects prior to obtaining profiles from the evidence because their knowledge might bias their results. This is a fundamental principle of good scientific practice. If you know the answer to the test, it is impossible not to “root for it” in some sense, conscious or unconscious, thereby biasing the outcome. In a partially subjective test like low copy number DNA profiling, where some peaks may be accepted and some rejected by the researcher, it is particularly important.

If the raw data files from those tests were released by the Polizia and prosecution, this might be less of an issue, but they have been withheld, so no one outside the Polizia Scientifica and friends knows what really happened, what peaks were selected, and which were dismissed as noise. The Court, however, had no problem with this form of bias because it did not comprehend it.

“In the first place, it must be stressed that it is not possible to discern any reason for which Dr. Stefanoni would have had any bias in favor of or against those under investigation and, on the basis of such bias, would have offered false interpretations and readings.”

Claiming that Stefanoni had no reason for bias shows a lack of understanding of experimental issues by the Court. Confirmation bias can occur whether or not a researcher favors or opposes a certain result. It is a tendency of people to steer results if they know what is expected and it cannot be simply wished away. But beyond that, Stefanoni acted as a fierce advocate for the prosecution, rather than as an impartial scientist. Her testimony and demeanor in court showed that. It is simply not true that she had no reason for bias, her career and reputation were on the line.

Closing Arguments

The Motivation postulates a sequence of improbable events to justify the guilty verdicts of Amanda and Raffaele. It substitutes this sequence for the simple, straightforward explanation that Rudy broke in, as he had done repeatedly at other places, was interrupted by Meredith, and wound up murdering her.

A principle in science called Occam’s razor states that one should not add unneeded complexity to explain something. Briefly put, “the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.” This Court was no friend of Occam. There is also an expression from American cinema for the probability of such a confoundingly complex sequence being correct. It is from the movie, Wayne’s World. “It might happen. Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt.”

But my favorite model for an utterly improbable sequence of events is a Rube Goldberg mechanism. We have all seen Goldberg’s cartoons of elaborate and improbable mechanisms, but for those who don’t recall the name, they are “a comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation.”

Here is the text describing Goldberg’s method for keeping shop windows clean.

“Passing man (A) slips on banana peel (B) causing him to fall on rake (C). As handle of rake rises it throws horseshoe (D) onto rope (E) which sags, thereby tilting sprinkling can (F). Water (G) saturates mop (H). Pickle terrier (I) thinks it is raining, gets up to run into house and upsets sign (J) throwing it against non-tipping cigar ash receiver (K) which causes it to swing back and forth and swish the mop against window pane, wiping it clean. If man breaks his neck by fall move away before cop arrives.”

The problem with such a mechanism is that if any, single step should fail, the whole system falls apart; and every single step is highly improbable. The probability of the entire sequence is the product of the probabilities of each step. With each step the probability becomes smaller, and smaller, till by the end, it is vanishingly small. The Motivation substitutes a Rube Goldberg murder mechanism for the simple, obvious fact that Meredith Kercher was murdered by Rudy Guede.

The Motivation is compatible with the framing of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito.

Through the Looking Glass ends with a poem. An excerpt:

“In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die”

Amanda and Raffaele have now seen three summers die while imprisoned for a crime they did not commit.