Medical Examiner Sues City Of New York After Being Forced Out Of Her Job For Questioning DNA Testing Techniques

from the siding-with-the-guilty?-that's-a-firin' dept

A lawsuit recently filed by an allegedly ousted New York City medical examiner lends more credibility to the theory that the justice system is more concerned with successful prosecutions than actual justice. At the center of the allegations lies a DNA testing technique apparently used nowhere else in the country.

A doctor filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Thursday, who said she was forced out of her job at the New York City Medical Examiner’s office after raising questions about the city’s use of a disputed technique for analyzing trace samples of DNA.

Dr. Marina Stajic said she was told she could either retire or be fired from her job as a laboratory director in April 2015. She said she was perceived as an adversary because of her position on the use of the DNA profiling technique known as low copy number, which critics have argued is unreliable and should not be used in court.

DNA evidence, once considered infallible, has proven to be just as questionable as other forms of evidence, like bite marks or hair samples. It’s not so much the technique itself, but the fallibility of those using it. Test results are often overstated and the evidence itself is so minute (literally no more than dozens of cells) that it risks contamination if not handled extremely carefully. This is especially true of Low Copy Number, which uses far fewer cells than other DNA testing methods.

LCN requires just 15–20 cells, allowing profiles to be yielded from miniscule amounts of biological material—such as skin cells or sweat residue from a single fingerprint on a variety of items which an offender may have touched or come into contact with. The LCN DNA process ‘facilitates the examination of a whole new range of evidence types that previously could not be analyzed because of the very low amounts of DNA recoverable from the sample’.

But this sensitivity is accompanied by a range of risks as it can mislead crime investigations and/or lead to possible wrongful convictions. First, the number of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) cycles has to be substantially increased to obtain LCN DNA profiles, which inevitably magnifies the risk of contamination and inaccurate results from ‘stochastic effects’, random statistical anomalies. Secondly, even if a DNA profile is accurately yielded, there are difficulties associated with the propositions and interpretations that can be drawn from LCN DNA results. Since LCN DNA profile can stem from the cells of a single touch by an unconnected innocent individual prior to the crime, a phenomenon commonly termed ‘adventitious transference’ can occur. Thirdly, low levels of DNA may also result from secondary transfer. For instance, if the perpetrator who is a poor DNA shedder had casual contact with an innocent individual who is a good DNA shedder prior to committing the crime, the perpetrator may leave behind DNA of the innocent individual whilst not shedding any of his or her own cells.

Dr. Stajic also served on the state’s Commission on Forensic Sciences and had been trying to get the city to drop the disputed DNA testing technique and move to something more reliable and less prone to false positives. Her complaint points out that the local Forensic Biology Laboratory is unique in its reliance on a questionable technique.

The use of LCN in criminal proceedings is currently the subject of controversy in the scientific and legal communities because of concerns that the analysis produces an unacceptable number of false positive results, which in turn can result in wrongful convictions.

On information and belief, the FBL is the only public DNA laboratory in the country that uses LCN in criminal cases. Sampson and Kuperfschmid have been strong advocates for the OCME’s continued use of LCN.

Sampson is Dr. Barbara Sampson, the city’s Chief Medical Examiner. Sampson was the one who told Dr. Stajic she could either resign or be fired after trying to make data on LCN available to the public. The chain of events depicted in the filing indicate the Medical Examiner’s Office is far more interested in locking people up than using accurate DNA testing methods.

Barry Scheck, Esq., a CFS Commissioner, participated in the October 24, 2014, meeting of the Commission. Scheck is a well-known criminal defense attorney and, along with fellow CFS Commissioner Peter Neufeld, Esq., is the co-founder of the Innocence Project, an organization that assists prisoners who can be proven innocent through the use of DNA testing.

At the October 24, 2014, meeting of the Commission, Scheck questioned Lien as to whether OCME had conducted an internal validation study that supported the use of LCN when the DNA sample recovered was a mixture of two or more people and the amount of the sample was particularly small (i.e., 25 picograms or less). Lien responded that OCME did indeed possess an internal validation study supporting the use of LCN under those circumstances.

Following Lien’s statement, Scheck made a motion for the Commission to request that OCME produce the internal validation study referred to by Lien and for the study to be available to the public.

Stajic voted in favor of Scheck’s motion because she believed that OCME should produce the internal data that it claimed supported the continued use of LCN with particularly small DNA samples. Stajic was also concerned that Lien’s statement about the existence of an internal validation study may not have been accurate.

Stajic was one of only three Commissioners to vote in favor of the motion, which was defeated. In addition to Stajic and Scheck, the only other Commissioner voting in favor of the motion was Marvin Schechter, who is also a criminal defense attorney…

Stajic’s vote in favor of Scheck’s motions were taken at a public meeting of the Commission. On information and belief, Sampson and Kuperfschmid became aware of Stajic’s votes, and they were displeased that Stajic appeared to be aligned with the criminal defense lawyers on the Commission, who Sampson and Kupferschmid viewed as adversarial to OCME.

In an office where everyone should be striving for truth and accuracy, it appears those in control are far more interested in showing deference to one side of the criminal justice equation: the prosecution. In doing so, the medical examiner’s office has cut the same public it’s instrumental in locking up out of the data loop. And, if the allegations are true, the office is silencing dissent by cutting loose employees who question its methods.

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Comments on “Medical Examiner Sues City Of New York After Being Forced Out Of Her Job For Questioning DNA Testing Techniques”

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suomynonA (user link) says:

Re: Re: Please, please, please bring this myth to an end. While there is skin cells in dust, it most certainly is not MOSTLY skin cells.

“it most certainly is not MOSTLY skin cells.”

Of course it isn’t skin. The way people seem these days, it’s mostly discarded BRAIN cells.

How does the joke (fixed for today’s audience) go?

Zombie walks into a shop, asks about the price of BRAAINZZ.

The proprietor says, “Well, we got cheap and expensive. Einstein’s brains go for a penny a pound, while brains from politicians go for about $100 per ounce.”

Mr Z: “Hey, but Einstein was famous and extremely smart while politicians are everywhere; don’t you have the prices reversed?”

Mr P.: “Nope — do you know how many politicians it takes to actually find an ounce of brains?”

Ba-dum-bum-CHING! Don’t forget to tip your waitress; I’ll be here all night.

“Safe spaces” my a$$. The only safe space is inside a coffin. Deal with the world, all of the rest of us have to.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Wait...

There are many people who believe this, sadly.

There is a willing blindness in many people that bad things can’t/don’t happen because it never happened to them. That the government wouldn’t pursue cases based on conjecture & guesses. That the accused are guilty because there is a downside to ruining someones life.

Personally I’ve been accused in legal documents of horrible things, and there are people who assume I must be guilty of the claims. They didn’t care to look at the people making the accusations wondering if there were other reasons for these claims. There are still people to this day convinced that the claims are true.

There are court cases where the ‘evidence’ is just dressed up crap with no basis in reality. Courts accept it because it is magical technology, and showing evidence it is wrong is questioned more than the tech itself.

There is a reason in rape cases they always mention imagine if it had been your wife/daughter… because they are trying to get people to personalize the issue. We remember the cases where the woman claimed rape, where no rape happened… more than we take notice of the cases where the claims were shown to be true. It is easier to imagine she is making it up, than the accused is innocent.

We know the system is rigged, but we imagine that justice is fair with checks and balances to keep it from being unfair. That no one convicted of a crime is really innocent. There are still people who think the men at the center of the Central Park 5 case are guilty, despite the system releasing them when they found the actual perpetrator. The West Memphis Three, they didn’t do it but the system still went out of its way to make sure they couldn’t get anything for the system having screwed them. Showing that the system lied and railroaded people is seen as to much of a danger.

They didn’t even try to go after any of the big fish in the mortgage collapse because those are hard cases to win. (Ignore that the lawyer who was running that investigation now has a cushy job with one of the big fish in that case.) But they stack up tons of charges against some kid who defaced a website to get them to take a settlement so they can get a sticky gold star for winning.

People want to believe that it doesn’t happen, because doubting that core belief in Justice shakes everything. It is easier to think that mistakes are 1 off unicorns that rarely happen and not the result of a system running unchecked to get its gold stars for a job well done at the expense of a patsy. See also: Steven Averys first arrest and conviction while the actual criminal kept committing crimes. One of the leads from that case to this day still maintains he was guilty and doubts the DNA, because otherwise he has to accept they framed & railroaded an innocent man and admit his own part in doing it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Wait...

Well said. It’s hard for many people to recognize just how bad our criminal and legal system has become because it’s much more comfortable to just close your eyes and believe that everything is OK.

“Personally I’ve been accused in legal documents of horrible things, and there are people who assume I must be guilty of the claims.”

Oh, hell, I’ve been named in a couple of lawsuits — never as the target (or complainant), but just because I had relevant knowledge.

Although the most recent one was 10 years ago, I still occasionally get the suspicious eye because of them. It’s insane.

Padpaw (profile) says:

for profit prisons means you have a need to send innocent people to jail. While no one is ever truly innocent of anything they are most likely innocent of what they are being tried for.

Of course if it was possible to see how much the DA and judges were getting in “donations and gifts” from those that own said for profit prisons yearly. be easier to find the corruption.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Ultimately doubt in the justice system changes convicts to political prisoners.

Since there is really no way to tell that a person was fairly tried or was simply forced through the justice system based on the lies and pretenses used to presume guilt and secure convictions.

It means that Two-Face is right, and that a coin toss serves as better justice. At least then we know our odds.

And it means that all these prisoners are put into prison not because of wrongdoing, but because a privileged official declared him enemy-of-the-state for personal reasons.

They’re all political prisoners now.

Padpaw (profile) says:

Re: Ultimately doubt in the justice system changes convicts to political prisoners.

The sad part is they will never be freed under the currently corrupt governmental systems in place. The people trying to shine a light on this pit of corruption are more likely to be targeted and made examples of than any real reform going through.

Would take a violent upheaval of things to get the innocent freed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Mitochondrial variance

Yes in very general terms the mutation rate for mtDNA is low, but if a mutation occurs it can occur in your parent’s generation which gave rise to you or 1000 generations ago. There is also a phenomenon known as heteroplasmy, see eg


Mammalian cells contain thousands of copies of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). At birth, these are thought to be identical in most humans. Here, we use long read length ultra-deep resequencing-by-synthesis to interrogate regions of the mtDNA genome from related and unrelated individuals at unprecedented resolution. We show that very low-level heteroplasmic variance is present in all tested healthy individuals, and is likely to be due to both inherited and somatic single base substitutions. Using this approach, we demonstrate an increase in mtDNA mutations in the skeletal muscle of patients with a proofreading-deficient mtDNA polymerase γ due to POLG mutations. In contrast, we show that OPA1 mutations, which indirectly affect mtDNA maintenance, do not increase point mutation load. The demonstration of universal mtDNA heteroplasmy has fundamental implications for our understanding of mtDNA inheritance and evolution. Ostensibly de novo somatic mtDNA mutations, seen in mtDNA maintenance disorders and neurodegenerative disease and aging, will partly be due to the clonal expansion of low-level inherited variants.


Anonymous Coward says:


We all know that DNA evidence is irrefutable.

We all know that scientists are paragons of virtue, who promote reason and objective Truth unassailed by concerns of petty, politics, tawdry, personal financial issues, or self-aggrandizement.

The problem in its main part is not that humans don’t know anything; it’s that we *know* so much that’s WRONG.

Bill Jackson (profile) says:

Mitochondrial variance

It is true that mitochondrial DNA is strongly conserved, but it does suffer mutation. If the mutation does not interfere with the function, it is inherited. If the mutation interferes with mitochondrial function, function is impaired, and even prevented, which can lead to cellular death or death of the organism if it occurred at a primal stage in replication(egg = one cell).

A screen of spontaneous abortions reveals this does occur. In addition, there are a number of mitochondrial diseases with variable outcomes, some fatal, some chronic.

The net result is that there is enough variation to screen people, but possibly not in relatives/siblings/twins.

Bill Jackson (profile) says:

Competence and evidence, Dr. Barbara Sampson etc.

Prosecutors want toggle switch evidence, the light of truth is either on or off. They do not want a dimmer switch with the prosecution and the defence trying to vary the validity of the evidence.
In the case of LCN, the ratio of suspected perpetrator DNA can vary from zero to 100%, and the scattered innocent DNA will be the inverse. In the case of publicly accessed items. like door-knobs, you can have mixed DNA from many people. With PCR multiplication you can see how many different people were present as trace DNA fragments, since even a single cell would be capable of differentiation via PCR.
One hopes a swab from the suspect can be used to determine if he was represented in the sample.
Dr. Barbara Sampson may be very competent, as is Dr Stajic also very competent. We are not assessing their competence. Samson is trying to turn this into an on-off toggle, the perp DNA is present or not. Stajic is making a middle ground, and middle ground can be exploited to reduce the certainty of the evidence. Once the evidence is less certain in the eyes of the jury – perps walk.

Sadly, LCN is quite valid, as it can show or deny the perps cell(s) is(are) presence, even with 50 others in the mix.
The question is:- Is the perp an innocent railroaded in?

If there are 300 cells of a stranger and one cell of the perp – did the stranger do it?

That said, there should be an internal dialog to validate the LCN method, because it can show that the perps DNA is there, and with other evidence to buttress it, might well be correct.

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