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Let's not depend on DNA tests

the guy-paul morin story

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By Donna Laframboise, Toronto Star, 19 September 1994

Donna Laframboise

Lawyers working on the Guy-Paul Morin case will be in the Ontario Court of Appeal tomorrow regarding a surprise new request by the crown to be allowed to conduct further DNA testing in the case.

Morin was acquitted of the murder of his 9-year-old neighbour, Christine Jessop, in 1986, but was convicted after a controversial second trial in 1992. He is currently seeking the right to appeal his conviction.

Jessop's body was in a severely decomposed state when it was discovered, having been exposed to the elements for a few months. Her underwear contained semen stains that have been the subject of various forensic examinations.

In 1991, half of the semen stained fabric was sent to a laboratory in Boston where DNA testing was done. The results were inconclusive. Furthermore, the act of running the tests had destroyed most of the sample.

The crown's proposal to once again try DNA testing is supported by an affidavit signed by Pamela Newall, the head of the DNA Unit at the Centre of Forensic Sciences, an Ontario government lab. She says there have been significant advances in testing methods since 1991 and believes there's now "an enhanced likelihood of obtaining a conclusive result".

Unfortunately, "an enhanced likelihood" is not the same as a sure thing. Newall and the crown are proposing that all the remaining bits of semen sample - the portion that was retained by the forensic centre here in Toronto as well as remnants that have been stored by the Boston laboratory - be pooled. Her affidavit says she and two other DNA experts she's discussed the matter with think a useful result "is likely" if all the material is used to run a new test now.

And what if they're wrong? If DNA testing has advanced so significantly in the past three years, who knows what developments might take place in the next three? If all samples are used up now on a test which still doesn't produce meaningful results, they'll be gone forever. Morin's chances of clearing himself by this means will have vanished.

In fairness, however, there may be an even bigger problem. This 10-year-old biological evidence may simply have no reliable results to give us.

After being exposed to a few months of sun, rain and cold, it was collected, packaged and transported to the forensic centre by a police officer who was subsequently charged with perjury and obstructing justice in connection with this case; a police officer whom the crown admits planted some evidence. (These charges were withdrawn due to the officer's poor health.)

While Newall's affidavit assures us the remnants retained by the Boston laboratory "have been kept safe and secure" since 1991, the forensic centre here in Toronto has a less than perfect record on that score.

This is, after all, the lab that lost hundreds of slides of hair and fibre samples in connection with the Guy-Paul Morin case. This is the lab that failed to inform anyone of that fact until the defence stumbled on it accidentally during cross examination. This is the lab which, years afterward, still hadn't bothered to make a list of exactly what had gone missing.

To begin with, therefore, these pieces of fabric may have been contaminated past the point of telling us anything we can trust.