Expert Q&A: Jane Moira Taupin

A quick interview with the author of Using Forensic DNA Evidence at Trial: A Case Study Approach.

See this article in its original format in the Digital Edition!

Jane Taupin has worked as a forensic scientist for three decades, serving police agencies in Australia and the United Kingdom. She began working with DNA evidence in 1999, and has worked as an independent consultant since 2011. After graduating with a science honors degree, Taupin was employed by the University of Melbourne and an associated teaching hospital as a medical researcher in immunology and haematology (hypertension and cancer fields). She left that position to join the Australian Federal Police where she was a constable and then detective, seconded for a time working on neutron activation analysis on criminal cases. Taupin was then employed as a scientist for the Victoria Police where she examined and reported forensic biology evidence in criminal cases, attended crimes scenes for biological evidence, and testified in court. Studying part time in the criminology field at the University of Melbourne, Taupin received a post graduate diploma and then a Masters by research with her thesis, “The Impact of DNA profiling on the criminal justice system,” one of the first in the field. During her time in England, Taupin was also a senior reporting scientist performing similar work. Taupin has published many forensic journal papers and texts, and has given lectures in Australia, England, Ireland, Japan, Qatar, Bahrain, South Korea, and the United States. She has won forensic science awards from the governments of Australia, Japan, and England.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What is the greatest strength of DNA evidence?

JANE TAUPIN: The power of discrimination. That is, the potential to exclude individuals from donating a biological deposit. When I first started biological casework, the scientific tests used—such as ABO grouping—had very low discrimination power. The introduction of DNA profiling revolutionized the value of biological evidence.

ETM: What is its greatest limitation?

TAUPIN: Its mystical aura that conveys the perception of infallibility. DNA profiling is a scientific test, subject to assumptions and limitations, and is just one part of an investigation.

ETM: Name a couple of issues that frequently arise when DNA evidence is brought to trial.

TAUPIN: Quality issues, mainly contamination. This concern may particularly arise in the re-examination of “cold cases” where items had previously been examined in conditions not subject to the strict laboratory controls required today.

Also, transfer issues: How did the DNA get there? Could it have arrived via innocent means? Or even via contamination (see above)? A DNA profile alone cannot determine when or how the DNA was deposited.

Another issue is the interpretation of “low template” DNA, when there may also be partial results or mixtures of two or more people. The interpretation of such small amounts with a DNA profile that may not faithfully reflect the DNA of the proposed donor has been problematic for years. Whether and how it should be done is a matter of controversy—especially when computer programs with trade-secret commercial codes are used.

ETM: What can laboratories do to avoid confirmation bias and contextual bias?

TAUPIN: The use of the scientific method in examinations should be emphasized. The scientific method involves proposing a hypothesis, experiments to test that hypothesis, and obtaining results that support, refute, or are inconclusive. Alternative hypotheses should always be proposed—not just the one proposed by the investigator or even the scientist.

A recipe-based approach is unsuited to forensic disciplines. A test result must be based on science principles using the scientific method, interpreted in the context of the case, and with assumptions and limitations at the forefront.

Peer review of the case file by another scientist with the scientific method as one of the core checking criteria would assist before reporting of any result.

ETM: In this issue, we are sharing an excerpt on “Mechanisms of DNA Transfer” from your new book, Using Forensic DNA Evidence at Trial. Can you talk a little about transfer from a forensic scientist’s perspective?

TAUPIN: Transfer has always been considered as one of the principle theories used in forensic science. The finding of visible stains such as blood led to the discipline of “blood pattern analysis” and the concept of contact/transfer stains versus projected stains. Direct transfer of material that results in visible stains and deposits has always been the consideration of biological fluid and other forensic material. Secondary and higher transfer of fibers and other visible trace material has been discussed in the literature.

Secondary transfer was in fact discussed in the first article that found DNA could be detected from objects touched by hands (van Oorschot and Jones, 1997, Nature), where there was no visible material. It has only been recently recognized in the forensic community that the possibility of secondary or higher transfer of DNA must always be considered. A number of papers published in the recent few years have highlighted the issue.

You can find an excerpt from Taupin’s new book, Using Forensic DNA Evidence at Trial: A Case Study Approach on Page 30 of this issue.

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