Faked DNA and Criminal Trials in Italy

Authentication of forensic DNA samples” is a paper released on the last Forensic Science International: Genetics issue by a group of Israeli researchers. Authors claim to have found a method to fabricate artificial biological samples (and the way to tell the differences from the original one) and wish that their finding will become a standard in forensic procedures to maintaini “the high credibility of DNA evidence in the judiciary system.”

Does this method really affect criminal investigations and trials?

“We still are in the “bad cop” (or evidence tamperer) field who planted faked biological samples on the crime scene” – says Andrea Cocito, researcher at IFOM, Milan (IT.) In fact, the “fabricated-genetic-evidence defense” has been proven viable in the  OJ Simpson case tried between 1994 and 1995 in Los Angeles, USA. Mr. Simpson’s lawyers were able to raise the suspicion that the results of the analysys on the biological samples coming from the crime scene – aiming at Mr. Simpson as “owner” of the DNA – weren’t reliable enough because of the police handling lack of care. “If” – Cocito argues – “a biological sample has  really been found on the crime scene, if the sample isn’t planted and if it’s not been degraded, then I might analyze both samples (the crime scene one and the one belonging to the defendant) to see if I get a match. In these case, there couldn’t be reasonable doubts on the results.” Thus, matching the defendant biosample collected in a controlled environment with the sample found on the crime scene it is possible to tell the probability of a reciprocal match.

The actual problem, then, is not the intrinsic scientific reliability of a genetic analysis-produced evidence. The problem is the strength of the chain of custody (i.e. the possibility of tracking all the intermediary steps, from the crime scene to the Court.) It is evident that if during the journey some part of it is not verifiable, a possibility comes to arise a legitimate doubt that what came in Court might not be what has been found on the crime scene.

On this issue, Italian law n. 85/2009 that creates a local National DNA Database is very lazy. There is neither any explicit duty of guaranteing the chain of custody, nor a provision that prevent the use in Court of wrongly-handled biological samples.

This is the translation of an article I’ve written for Nova-IlSole24Ore. The Italian version is available here.

Italian NDNA database. The devil is in the details

On June 30, 2009, the Italian Parliament finally passed Law No. 85 that ratifies the Prum Convention and forms the legal ground for the creation of an Italian National DNA Database (NDNAD.)

Although this law might have benefited from UK and USA court experience in the field of DNA forensics, the current text indicates that neither British nor American case law have been taken into consideration. Furthermore, the law is flawed by a foggy understanding of the technicalities behind DNA profiling and sloppy wording that certainly will not facilitate the work of lawyers, prosecutors or judges. Just to highlight a few of these inconsistencies, it must be noted that art. 8 (Attivita` del laboratorio centrale per la banca dati nazionale del DNA – Activity of NDNA Database Central Laboratory) lacks any general provision that would oblige all the responsible parties to adopt serious and adequate security measures against unauthorized access, data tampering, and illegal handling of data and information. Continue reading “Italian NDNA database. The devil is in the details”

Italian data protection authority to (apparently) sanction Carabinieri’s DNA forensics biobank

On May, 25 2009 the Italian Data Protection Authority (DPA) disclosed the results of an investigation over the DNA forensics database run by the Carabinieri’s Raggruppamento Investigativo Speciale (RIS.) 1

According to the laconic press release, the DPA ordered RIS to enforce stricter security measures to track who access the database. Although the DPA (as often) didn’t release the full decision, it is a legitimate inference to say that RIS didn’t take DNA security seriously enough. DPA decision shares the same (flawed) cultural milieu of the Italian National DNA Database Institution Bill, soon to become into full force. The DPA objected nothing about RIS ( (as well as the NDNAD bill) to retain  both biological sample and DNA profile. By doing so, the DPA laid the foundation for the most pervasive, State-controlled citizen mass privacy violation.

Current DNA profiling methods, such as the SNPs (read “snips”) are powerful enough to allow the identification of a person, without the need of preserving the biological sample that provided the genetic profile. By saying that Carabinieri (and the Parliament) are allowed to do the contrary, means bear the effective risk of having analysis of a very diferrent (and uncontrolled) kind to be performed on the genetic code of the inhabitant of the Italian NDNAD.

Pandora’s pot would be – then – ready to be opened.

  1. One of the three main police force in Italy. The others are Polizia di Stato and Guardia di Finanza

One step ahead towards the Italian National DNA Database

On Dec. 23 2008 the Italian Senate passed the law that allows the creation of an Italian National DNA Database (NDNAD.) When the Camera dei deputati (a sort of Lower Chamber) will grants its approval the law is approved. Technically speaking, there is room for amendments, but this is improbable and, even if amendments come, they wouldn’t change the foundation of this law.

The law is flawed by several weak points: a scientific and cultural lack of perspective (poor understanding of molecular biology and DNA forensics issues); an incredible exemptions for white-collar crimes, so corruption and other political and economic-related crimes  never fall into the NDNAD; very light punishment for NDNAD abuse.

A more detailed analysis will follow soon.

Towards an Italian National DNA Database

Italy started the legal process to establish a National DNA Database.

A draft law proposed by Goverment (and not yet approved by the Parliament) establish the power for Law Enforcement officer to obtain DNA samples with moderate use of force, inflicting a minimum pain.This provision is said to be necessary in case the suspect refuses to volounteerly provide the sample.

It is still unclear which structure the DNA database will assume, but is seems that both DNA samples and profiles will be collected and stored in a central facility.