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Scientists divided on DNA tests

the guy-paul morin story

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By Donna Laframboise, Toronto Star, 26 September 1994

Donna Laframboise

Pamela Newall is the head of the DNA Unit at the Centre of Forensic Sciences, an Ontario government lab. After being approached by a crown attorney, and after speaking to two other DNA experts, Newell signed an affidavit on Sept. 1 advocating further DNA testing in the Guy-Paul Morin case. (In 1992, Morin was convicted of murdering 9-year-old Christine Jessop. He is appealing the conviction.)

One of these experts was Dr. David Bing, the scientific director of CBR Laboratories in Boston. In 1991, at the request of Morin's lawyers, Bing conducted DNA testing on semen stains found on Jessop's underwear; his results were inconclusive.

Newall's affidavit says Bing supports her current proposal to combine the contents of microscope slides held by both the Toronto and Boston labs, to extract DNA from the semen samples on these slides and - depending on available amounts - to test one type of DNA or combine two types of DNA and test these.

She says Bing agrees that "a qualitatively and quantitatively interpretable result is likely if these steps are followed" and that he is willing to perform the tests.

There's just one problem. Two weeks later, Bing himself signed an affidavit that tells a rather different story.

Directly contradicting Newall, Bing says that despite advances in DNA testing over the past three years, he simply doesn't know whether pooling the slides "will or will not improve the likelihood of a conclusive result." He says he has told Newell that.

Although Newell has proposed combining DNA from various individual stains on the underwear in order to have a larger amount to work with, Bing's affidavit says he objects to this because we can't be sure all the semen came from the same person. (We know Jessop's brother has admitted to having sexual relations with her. It's also possible she was raped by more than one individual before being killed.)

Indeed, Bing says that without a guarantee that the semen is from one source only "any results garnered from an examination of this pooled genomic DNA would be of no forensic value." As for mixing two different types of DNA (genomic and amplified) together, he says this is "problematic" because making extensive use of amplified DNA could lead to "an unreliable result." He says he has told Newall all this, too.

In contrast to her enthusiasm for testing, Bing's affidavit says "it is quite possible that testing at this time will significantly diminish the likelihood of conclusive testing in the future" and that he is "of the opinion that all parties should proceed with caution in dealing with the remaining" evidence.

What's going on here? How could Newall so profoundly misunderstand Bing's position? How could she swear out an affidavit saying he agreed with conducting further tests, by specific methods, when he says he objects to these methods because the results would be scientifically suspect? Remember, Bing is the person whom the crown itself chose to perform these new tests.

Remember, also, that Newall is the Ontario government's top DNA expert - who regularly conducts her own tests and is asked for her opinion in court. If these two experts can't agree on what constitutes good or bad science, and if they each came away with such alarmingly different notions of what was said in telephone conversations between them, Newall's superiors in the Solicitor General's ministry should be demanding an explanation.

What's more, the crown has now got a serious problem on it's hands.