did not come to pass. Mysterious ways.
In the meantime, there are still movements afoot. An application still sits before the U.S. Supreme Court. More motions are pending before a new trial judge. The prosecutor was asked to submit the DNA profile recovered from the fingernails and underwear of the victim for comparison to the FBI’s CODIS DNA index. Whether the DNA is sufficent (has the correct alleles) and results in a hit is anybody’s guess, but in the meantime, here is some more factual information about the DNA evidence in the case.
I hope to convince anyone with the patience to hear me out that the DNA evidence in Father Robinson’s case is exculpatory and proves his innocence. The prosecutor’s arguments dismissing this DNA evidence are flawed, unscientific, and inadequate to rebut it.
Meanwhile, Father Robinson is in prison for a murder he did not commit. The DNA proves it. The lingering questions about the unknown male DNA found on the body and clothing of Sister Pahl will forever cloud the conviction of Father Gerald Robinson.
The DNA profile of an unknown male was recovered from the bloody fingernails of Sister Pahl after she was strangled and stabbed to death. The same male DNA profile was also recovered from her underwear. The State has never done much that that evidence. It did not match Father Robinson, so it did not fit the theory of the case to which the State had wed itself while the DNA evidence was being processed.
The State did, however, compare that unknown male DNA profile to the DNA of Father Jerome Swiatecki. Father Swiatecki fit their “profile” of the killer as a Catholic priest. He did not match. Years after they should have done so, they also compared the DNA to Coral Eugene Watts, serial killer with an M.O. that fit the crime. No match.
The very fact that the State has done this comparison testing is a tacit acknowledgement that the DNA recovered in this case is precisely the type of DNA evidence that would very likely result in the conviction of any man who matched because of the nature of the DNA (blood) and the location it was found (underwear and fingernails). Specifically, the DNA evidence comes from scrapings of a strangulation victim’s bloody nails. To those learned in DNA evidence, this is extremely compelling forensic evidence.
Bloody fingernail scrapings have a long forensic history.
Fingernails have long been known to yield good evidence in any assault or murder case involving close physical contact between the victim and the assailant. Skin, hair, and blood, so often recovered from murder victims’ nails, have actually been the objects of intensive forensic study for centuries.
As has been so well known for so long, “In cases of personal violence, the fingernails may be used as a weapon of defense.”
Bloody fingernail scrapings have been admitted into evidence in the United States for at least 92 years. In 1916, the Louisiana state courts approved evidence of fingernail scrapings containing human blood in State v McLaughlin, 138 La 958, 70 S 925 (1916).
In 1941, the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology mentions that fingernail scrapings are “often” taken but should be even more widely used. Stated the Journal: "In the investigation of crimes of violence, such as murder and rape, scrapings from the fingernails are often examined for traces of blood. * * * Fingernail scrapings should be utilized more often than at present. One of our latest rape cases was considerably strengthened by [this evidence]."
By at least the 1940s, police training manuals included explicit instructions on how to take fingernail scrapings. “Place the hand from which the scrapings are to be taken over a large sheet of clean white paper...” per the 1947 edition of Modern Police Work, Including Detective Duty.
In 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States held that a warrant was not required for the police to scrape the fingernails of a husband following the strangulation death of his wife. The Supreme Court commented that the police acted properly, “knowing that evidence of strangulation is often found under the assailant’s fingernails.” Cupp v. Murphy, 412 U.S. 291, 292; 93 S.Ct. 2000 (1973).
In 1974, a pathologist’s legal hornbook, The Pathology of Homicide: A Vade Mecum for Pathologist, Prosecutor, and the Defense Attorney, had this to say on the subject: "Examination of fingernail scrapings of known and suspected victims of rape-homicide should always be carried out."
By the 1980s, blood evidence from fingernails was routinely ABO-genotyped. As of 1980, it was well established as a matter of routine that rape victims should have their fingernails swabbed. During all this time, the tests became more sophisticated as traditional microscopic exams, enzyme tests, and acid phosphatase yielded to PSA antigen tests and then A-B-O blood grouping. Then DNA came along, and DNA profiling has superseded most other tests.
Thus, while DNA is technically a new science, fingernail scrapings are nothing new. Contrary to the State’s arguments in this case, the forensic importance of a victim’s fingernail scrapings has been well known to law enforcement for generations.
DNA Testing based on Fingernail Scrapings is Backed by Science and Real-World Studies.
Fingernail scraping evidence has proven to work in convicting violent criminals. As the leading forensic textbook makes clear, “A number of studies have reported the successful identification of assailants and rapists using DNA extracted from epithelial cells trapped below, and subsequently recovered, from fingernails of the victim.” (Forensic Human Identification: An Introduction by Thompson, 2007).
A leading law school textbook on the subject concurs: “A number of identifications of assailants have been made through DNA typing of tissue recovered from under the fingernails.” (Forensic Pathology by DiMaio, 2001).
Numerous medical journals have published articles from 1992 to 2004 on the development of reliable methods of extracting DNA evidence from fingernail clippings, scrapings, and cuttings, demonstrating their validity and reliability.
A real world study recently backed up what law enforcement and our highest jurists have known for many years. In a controlled study of the autopsies of victims of homicide by knife stab wounds in the city of Milan, Italy, all victims’ nails were scraped. A foreign DNA profile was recovered from the victim’s fingernails in eleven out of that year’s thirty-one stabbing cases. Suspects were identified in seven of the cases, and in all seven cases, a suspect matched the DNA from the stabbing victim’s fingernails.
The scientists who studied these cases recommend routine fingernail scrapings during autopsies in all “homicide cases when a struggle is suspected.” As put forth in their paper from the International Society for Forensic Genetics: "A well-known source of DNA in assault cases is represented by debris recovered from under the fingernails, often originating from tiny tissue fragments scratched from a suspect’s skin. The collection of fingernail clippings before autopsy [should be routine] in cases of death from stab wounds or when a struggle may have occurred (e.g. strangulation, beating, hanging, throttling)…."
It is only reasonable to agree with the U.S. Supreme Court and leading scientists who have long declared that fingernail scrapings in strangulation cases can yield a DNA result that is, as the scientists put it, of “great value”. Hundreds of authorities to this effect can be found via Google Books or any internet search engine with the terms “fingernail scrapings” and DNA.
In 2009, the National Academy of Science strongly endorsed the compelling forensic value of fingernail scrapings in strangulation cases. The National Academy of Science recently issued a report on forensic science in the American courtroom today that underscores the importance of DNA evidence, specifically fingernail scraping evidence. In its February 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, an impressive panel of specialists called on all Trial Courts across the nation to use discrimination when it comes to admitting forensic evidence.
This report went beyond the critical examination of some of the shaky science being admitted in courtrooms today and emphasized that DNA is the reigning forensic science. Our National Academy of Science declared DNA evidence is the best forensic method available today, and it offered a very compelling example of the sort of DNA evidence that its national panel of scientists and legal and medical experts found to be most persuasive of all:
"Even if DNA evidence is available, it will assist in solving a crime only if it supports an evidential hypothesis that makes guilt or innocence more likely. For example, the fact that DNA evidence of a victim’s husband is found in the house where the couple lived and where the murder took place proves nothing. The fact that the husband’s DNA is found under the fingernails of the victim who put up a struggle may have a very different significance."
As the National Academy of Science explained so well in its watershed report, a DNA match to the fingernail scrapings of the victim in this case is an “evidential hypothesis” that would make a “very different significance” for Father Robinson’s claim of innocence. In our case, the fingernail scrapings, taken during the original autopsy, tested positive for blood and male DNA. We can reasonably infer, as our grandparents would have before us, that Sister Pahl fought her attacker and drew his blood. If someone else matches that profile, Father Robinson will be completely exonerated. He already is, to those of us who have faith in science.
The prosecution cites a truism: The police did not use DNA evidence back in 1980. That’s true. But they certainly used fingernail scraping evidence. The State has also argued, to date, that the DNA evidence in this case is from “contamination,” but that is an unscientific and unsound argument. Unfortunately it was the argument that the Ohio Court of Appeals cited as grounds to disregard the evidence found in the victim’s fingernail scrapings.
In the language of DNA, “contamination” only adds another DNA profile. It does not dilute or affect any others that might be already present. The state has yet to offer a compelling -- let alone logical -- explanation for how this victim’s fingernail scrapings came to be “contaminated” with blood.