Investigating prosecutor Ernst Dieter Hirschmann, left, and the General Prosecutor for the
Saarland state, Ralf-Dieter Sahm.

German Murder Mix-Up Shows DNA Evidence Has Its Flaws

March 28, 2009 10:00 AM
by Cara McDonough
Authorities have discovered that DNA traces used to identify a serial killer suspect known as “Germany’s most dangerous woman” may have been contaminated.

Misleading Evidence in Serial Killer Case

The suspected “Phantom of Heilbronn” is believed to have committed acts of homicide and burglary at 40 locations in southern Germany and Austria since 1993.

Investigators believed they had pinned down the identity of the killer with identical female DNA collected on cotton swabs used at the scenes of the crimes, but this week it emerged that the swabs may have been contaminated with someone else’s DNA.

The news is forcing investigators to admit that the woman may have never existed.

Authorities have asked employees at the company where the swabs were being stored to provide saliva samples so that their DNA samples can be compared to the suspect’s, Breitbart reports.
According to the BBC, doubts first surfaced about the identity of the “Phantom” when the same DNA appeared on documents belonging to an individual who had died in a fire.

At that point, “alarm bells started ringing and investigators began to suspect that the test material itself may have been contaminated with DNA.”

Ulrich Goll, the justice minister for the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, has stated that he believes the case is now closed. He said he believes that the contamination occurred at the factory where the evidence was stored.

Head of the union of police officers in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Josef Schneider, however, wants to wait until the investigation is concluded to make any judgments.

He did admit, “if the trace does belong to a woman working in the factory, it'll be very embarrassing.”

Related Topic: The problem with DNA, and other evidence

DNA evidence may seem infallible, but a recent study released by the National Academy of Sciences showed that most crime-lab evidence is not dependable enough to allow in court.

The findings, issued by the federal government’s main scientific advisory board, showed a lack of uniform standards across crime labs as the underlying cause of their apparent inaccuracies, as well as the fact that they are often administered by police departments or prosecutors rather than forensic scientists.

According to the study, DNA was cited as the one form of crime lab evidence reliable enough to be admissible in court testimony as a true “match” to a person. But even hair, bites, fibers and tool marks—long considered viable evidence resulting in convictions—are not dependable enough to be used in court.

Other forms of evidence have caused controversy, as well.

In May 2008, researchers at Marquette University announced the creation of a computer program to decipher bite-mark characteristics; they hoped the new technology would be a step toward the formation of a bite-mark database, which would help authorities identify perpetrators in criminal cases.

But critics countered that bite-mark testimony is unreliable, and the creation of a database would not change that. The Innocence Project, for example, blames bite-mark testimony on the false convictions of numerous individuals who were later exonerated by DNA evidence. The group cited a study indicating a “63.5% rate of false identifications.”

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Related Topic: German twins and “the perfect crime”

It has not been a great month for Germany, at least in DNA evidence.

Identical twins Hassan and Abbas O., who were charged in a multimillion-dollar jewelry heist in Germany in January, have gone free because “their genetic information is so similar that traces of DNA found at the crime scene failed to provide conclusive evidence for trial,” ABC reports.

During the heist, at luxury store Kaufhaus des Westens, surveillance cameras caught three masked men evading motion detectors and making away with their loot, but DNA was left behind in the form of a trace of sweat in a discarded rubber glove.

When investigators ran the evidence through their database, the twins were a match; both have criminal records.

They were arrested because police assumed that at least one of them took part in the theft, but were eventually released because the evidence could not pinpoint which was the culprit.

“From the evidence we have, we can deduce that at least one of the brothers took part in the crime,” the court said in a statement, “but it has not been possible to determine which one.”

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