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Week 11: Jury unfazed by experts' grim DNA testimony

Globe and Mail Update

NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. — In the 11th week of the Robert Pickton trial, graphic testimony by experts about bloodlike stains on items found in his home and about DNA profiles of women whose remains were found on the farm has become almost routine.

The grisly evidence was heard in an emotion-charged atmosphere in the opening days of the trial. Family members of the deceased women and some members of the public at that time were visibly disturbed by what was said in court.

But by the 11th week the trial proceeded without anxiety or distress on display. Jurors flipped through thick binders of photographs of the evidence in a relaxed manner as two forensic experts testified about testing stains on numerous items for blood and semen. The pile of binders with photographs has become so huge that the trial judge, Mr. Justice James Williams, suggested that the jurors should receive extra pay for having to lug them around.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pickton, in a pressed grey shirt and black jeans, sat in the prisoner's box with a pad on his lap, ready to make notes. As on every day since the beginning of the trial, he listened to the witnesses without showing any emotion. In the public gallery, students on field trips outnumbered members of the public and the news media.

Court heard that a DNA profile matching Sereena Abotsway was found on a black see-through blouse found in a closet in Mr. Pickton's house trailer. The DNA of Andrea Joesbury was found on an orange garbage bag discovered on a table in the slaughterhouse. The slaughterhouse was located steps away from Mr. Pickton's trailer.

Mr. Pickton is on trial for the deaths of Ms. Abotsway, Ms. Joesbury, Marnie Frey, Georgina Papin, Brenda Wolfe and Mona Wilson. He has admitted in a submission to court that the women are dead and their remains were on his property. However, he says he did not kill the women.

Yvon de Moissac, a forensic expert who identified DNA on some evidence, testified that the presence of blood was confirmed in a stain on a sports bag found in Mr. Pickton's house trailer. A portion of a stain five centimetres by one centimetre was put into a tube and sent to the RCMP biology lab for DNA testing.

Two syringes and an inhaler were found inside the sports bag. Bloodlike material was washed out of one of the syringes and tested negative for blood, he said. The material was absorbed on a swab, air-dried and sent to the lab for DNA testing.

However the second syringe, also with a bloodlike stain inside, had different test results. The presence of blood was confirmed. A swab of the material was air-dried, placed in a small tube and sent for DNA analysis, he told the court.

Mr. de Moissac similarly told the court about tests for the presence of blood on several other items found in the trailer or nearby, including a broken green bottle, a beer can and a two-litre plastic soft-drink bottle. The test for blood was made in one case on an area as small as half a centimetre by three centimetres.

Tests for blood on areas in a mobile home, including on the venetian blinds, were positive, he said.

The jury heard that a hair found behind a stuffed horse's head on a wall in Mr. Pickton's trailer had been tested. The DNA profile extracted from the root matched Mr. Pickton's, Mr. de Moissac said.

The DNA of Pat Casanova, who the court has heard was arrested but not charged during the investigation, was found on night-vision goggles found in Mr. Pickton's trailer and on an apron hanging in the slaughterhouse.

The court heard that the DNA of Dinah Taylor, who was also arrested and released, was on several items in the trailer, including numerous articles of clothing.

Numerous bloodstains discovered throughout an old motor home on Mr. Pickton's farm yielded DNA that matched the unique genetic code of Ms. Wilson, court heard.

The jury had previously heard that Ms. Wilson's decomposing head, hands and feet were found in a garbage can in a corner of a slaughterhouse on the pig farm.

The old motor home, located not far from the slaughterhouse, was described as a possible murder scene earlier in the trial. Blood-splatter expert Jack Mellis told the court police found blood everywhere inside the motor home, on the walls, the floors and the kitchen cabinet. A foam mattress was soaked in blood. Bloodied running shoes were in a closet.

DNA expert David Morissette identified more than 20 places in the motor home that yielded DNA profiles that matched Ms. Wilson's: a blood-stained piece of wood moulding along a wall in the motor home, a counter edge, a piece of furniture, a heater, an area of a window blind.

Mr. Morissette turned the pages of a massive binder, searching out the appropriate lab reports as Crown prosecutor Derrill Prevett asked for the results of DNA testing.

In each instance, Mr. Morissette said the DNA profile matched that of Ms. Wilson. With several items, the probability of a random match with another Canadian was placed as high as one in 26 trillion.

DNA profiles that matched Ms. Wilson's were found in the motor home on cider bottles, a beer can and a soft-drink bottle, on crack-cocaine pipes, a syringe, newspapers and some clothing, Mr. Morissette said.

The forensic scientists also detected her DNA on an area of a blood-soaked mattress in the motor home. The DNA of a man named Robert Houle was also discovered on the mattress, Mr. Morissette said. However the jury did not hear any further information about who Mr. Houle was or why his DNA was discovered on the mattress.

Mr. Pickton was linked to Ms. Wilson in two instances. Police found a .22-calibre revolver with a dildo pulled over the barrel on a shelf in Mr. Pickton's home, metres from the motor home. Testing yielded a mixed DNA profile that included Ms. Wilson and possibly Mr. Pickton, court heard.

However, Mr. Morissette cautioned that the statistical significance of the evidence was not the same in both instances. He said the match with Ms. Wilson was highly probable.

But Mr. Morissette lowered the odds drastically for the match with Mr. Pickton. He said he would not rule out Mr. Pickton as a possible match. He estimated the probability of a random match with another individual at one in 5,500.

The jury could put some weight on the results, Mr. Morissette said, but not too much weight.

Mr. Pickton was also mentioned during a review of DNA test results that yielded a profile of Ms. Abotsway. Her partial remains were found in a bucket in a freezer, located in the garage/workshop adjacent to the motor home.

Mr. Pickton was confronted with photographs of the blood-spattered motor home during an interview by police on the day after he was arrested. He was shown photos of blood on the mattress, floors and walls and a spot where a body has been dragged and told that the blood was from Ms. Wilson.

“But that don't mean I did it,” Mr. Pickton replied. “I didn't do anything, I don't know her.”

Mysteries abounded in the search for DNA matches to items found on the farm of Mr. Pickton, jurors heard.

Veteran reporting officer David Morisette testified under cross-examination about the extensive effort he undertook to figure out how unknown DNA made it into the teeth of two women Mr. Pickton is accused of killing.

Another reporting officer testified how not enough DNA was found on a band saw to make a match with anyone, though jurors heard that dozens of items with DNA matching people known to the investigation, but never charged, were found.

And in between what have become routine revelations of these DNA results, the defence called into question the discovery of Mr. Pickton's DNA alongside that of his alleged victims on three different exhibits.

Jurors heard how swabs from two syringes were found with the DNA of both Ms. Abotsway and Mr. Pickton, whose DNA was also on a gun fitted with a dildo that held the DNA of Mona Wilson.

“With [the syringes] as with the gun and dildo, the fact we have a mixture doesn't tell us anything about when two different components in the mixture were deposited, one could have preceded the other by a considerable period of time, correct?” defence lawyer Marilyn Sandford asked Mr. Morissette.

“That's correct,” Mr. Morissette said.

Mr. Morissette had gone back to review the data on the syringes and the gun before giving his testimony to make sure the DNA results were accurate, jurors heard. He also dropped everything else he was working on in connection with the trial when the unexpected DNA contamination was found in the women's teeth.

Three teeth from Ms. Abotsway and two from Ms. Joesbury had been taken from their remains found in buckets on Mr. Pickton's farm.

One of Ms. Abotsway's teeth turned up only her DNA, but on her other ones and on Ms. Joesbury's, samples of mixed origin were found.

On one of Ms. Joesbury's teeth and on one of Ms. Abotsway's, the unknown sample wasn't sufficient to compare against the 1,250 samples taken from police, lab technicians and the myriad other people connected in some way to Mr. Pickton's farm.

On Ms. Joesbury's other tooth, there was enough DNA to rule out Mr. Pickton and everyone else from that database.

But on Ms. Abotsway's other tooth, two profiles besides hers surfaced.

“Robert Pickton was excluded,” Mr. Morissette testified, but a man and a woman known to have visited Mr. Pickton's farm couldn't be.

“I spent quite a bit of time . . . trying to find a source for these profiles,” Mr. Morissette told Ms. Sandford.

The samples were retested, amplified to see if partial amounts could make a match and run against other cases in the lab to see if there had been cross-contamination.

Mr. Morissette also reviewed the lab procedures at the facility where the teeth were extracted and ground down for the purposes of DNA testing.

“At the end of the day, I don't know where these profiles came from,” he said.

“We'd looked into it in as great detail as we possibly could and came to no conclusion.”

Lab contamination wasn't a factor, Mr. Morissette had concluded and in later testimony yesterday the jury heard that only a small percentage of samples were found to have been ruined.

Reporting officer Kathleen Horley testified that of the 136 samples contaminated, 42 were linked to lab staff, 35 to controls used for quality-measuring purposes, 45 were traced to investigators and 14 remained unknown.

The lab processed 235,398 samples in total.

With a report from Canadian Press

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