UPDATE — 6:50 PM EST Nearly twenty-four hours, a new development from NBC confirms what I suggested might have happened. Investigators are now reporting “contamination at a city laboratory could have led to the match between DNA found at the murder scene of a Julliard student eight years ago and a chain used at a recent Occupy Wall Street protest.”
I pointed out in my coverage that nobody was raising the possibility of DNA contamination. They were not even asking another key question, which is why NYPD swabbed for DNA at a “protest” scene. Every media organization covering was instead repeating NYPD propaganda without questioning what they were saying at all.
Last night, media organizations in New York reported New York Police Department investigators found DNA that linked the Occupy Wall Street movement to an unsolved murder from 2004. Anyone reading or hearing the news would have immediately thought there is a murderer in the Occupy movement in New York. The only problem is the DNA find being reported may not have come from any occupiers in the movement and this is likely police propaganda, which the media is reporting unskeptically.
The supposed news story is, as NBC New York reported, “forensic evidence from the 2004 murder scene of a Juilliard student” named Sarah Fox has been linked to “the scene of recent Occupy Wall Street subway vandalism.” DNA on a CD player found at the crime scene matches “DNA found on a chain left by Occupy Wall Street protesters at the Beverly Road subway station in East Flatbush on March 28, 2012.”
The NBC New York headline reads:
Buried a few paragraphs down, however, is the following sentence, “There’s no immediate evidence that the DNA belongs to the Occupy Wall Street protesters who chained open the gates.” The NYPD has no idea who could have left DNA on that chain. Any person could have walked by and touched the chain when the gates were open. (An aside, the Occupy movement did not engage in “subway vandalism.” Rather, they engaged in an act of civil resistance against the Metropolitan Transit Authority in cooperation with a transit workers union, TWU Local 100, against “escalating service cuts, fare hikes, racist policing, assaults on transit workers’ working conditions and livelihoods — and the profiteering of the super-rich by way of a [transit] system they’ve rigged in their favor.”)
Nonetheless, the message is now out there: a “possible serial killer” has been organizing as part of the Occupy movement. These are a majority of the sensational headlines the NYPD were able to get the media to publish in the past twenty-four hours:
The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Gothamist at least include a question mark in their headline. The AP is professional enough to make it clear that an “official” is making this claim. But, the amalgamation of headlines is potent enough to ensure that citizens are on the lookout for any criminal occupiers, who might be murderers.
The sketchiness of this yellow journalism is amplified by the fact that the story doesn’t really have evidence to support the titillating nature of the headline. The Village Voice article is a good example. Their headline is, “Occupy Wall Street Chained to 2004 Murder of Sarah Fox.” But then, a few paragraphs down in the story is the following clarification, “Just because DNA found at the crime scene also was found on the chain, it doesn’t necessarily mean the killer is an occupier. While it could be, the DNA also could belong to anyone who passed by the open gate and made contact with the chain.”
Additionally, the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted an NYPD official who said of the DNA, “Whether it’s a friend or the bad guy, we have to find out.” A friend whose DNA was found at the scene of Fox’s murder could have left DNA at the Occupy Wall Street protest scene. But that is missing or buried in this story, which reads like something Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper would publish.
The real story, as Chen points out in her Gawker post, is actually buried. Why did the NYPD swab for DNA at the site of the Occupy Wall Street action on March 28? Chen writes, “New York loves DNA evidence: Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed expanding New York’s DNA database to include those convicted of any crime in New York city, even if it’s as minor as graffiti or palm-reading,” and adds, “We’ll probably be seeing a lot more stories like this in the future.” (In fact, NYPD may already be routinely sampling “property crimes.”
The DNA link is mostly being taken as unmistakable evidence. There is no mention of the fact that there could be contamination in samples, evidence could have been mislabeled, someone in the NYPD could have misinterpreted or misrepresented evidence, etc. With the link between the murder and protest scene, certainly all of the above should be entered as possible explanations for why the NYPD has turned up an improbable match.
It is not as if the DNA databank the NYPD operates is not prone to human error or abused by police to expedite convictions. New York Civil Liberties Union notes in a July 2011 release on New York state proposals to expand the databank:
…Prof. William C. Thompson has documented an unexpectedly high incidence of error and fraud in the collection, handling and analysis of DNA evidence: mislabeling of samples, cross contamination of samples, misinterpretation of results, misrepresentation. Thompson has documented these problems in labs across the country, including the DNA lab operated by New York City’s medical examiner. In that case an analyst was caught “faking the result of control samples designed to detect instances in which cross-contamination” has occurred.
According to Thompson, we are not seeing a sudden deterioration in the quality of DNA testing, but the identification of problems that have long existed – problems that occur even in the best labs – but have been successfully hidden.
In a 2009 report the National Academy of Sciences issued a sweeping critique of the nation’s crime labs, observing that forensic scientists with law enforcement agencies “sometimes face pressure to sacrifice appropriate methodology for the sake of expediency.” New York is not immune to these problems. The state’s inspector general published a report last year that concluded a forensic analyst with the New York State Police crime lab had falsified test results over a fifteen-year period. The analyst had not been properly trained; his superiors not only condoned the fraudulent conduct, but attempted to conceal it.
The Inspector General’s office exposed a similar problem in the NYPD’s crime lab. A 2007 report concluded that police department lab analysts had falsified forensics tests and that the NYPD had failed to adequately investigate and report that evidence had been compromised… [emphasis added]
None of these articles raise the possibility that this link could have happened as part of an error or that the match has been made fraudulently. One should be able to agree that the likelihood that an occupier is the murderer is similar to the likelihood that this match is the result of a flaw in the examination of forensic evidence. (After all, it is not like the NYPD isn’t corrupt.)
The NYPD have had a prime suspect—Dimitry Sheinman. He apparently told them the name of the real “killer” recently that came to him through a psychic vision. It does not appear that he has been organizing with Occupy. He was living in South Africa but returned to New York to share his vision. So, does the DNA link happen to match up with the name Sheinman got through his vision?
For naysayers, obviously the NYPD should investigate all possible leads and they should be doing everything they can to catch the killer, even if that killer happens to have been organizing as a member of the Occupy movement. However, the movement does not harbor killers and the NYPD appears to have launched a fishing expedition that further slanders the movement.
Finally, some context: it is no secret that the NYPD loathes and has conspired against the Occupy movement. The NYPD recently, as Congressman Jerrold Nadler put it, “crafted a ‘Wanted’-like poster advising officers to look out for ‘Professional Agitators’ – OWS activists who were apparently legally documenting the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk activities.” When Occupy Wall Street had an encampment in Zuccotti Park, they were believed to be dropping off drunks and homeless people at the park.
One should ask, why did the NYPD decide to make this “link” public? Why couldn’t they have pursued whomever’s DNA they have privately? Or do they not know whose DNA was on the CD player? Were they hoping to intimidate those who were involved in the subway action into coming forward so they could press charges for that action?
Whatever the police department’s motives, it seems clear that the release of this information on a “link” is all a part of a propaganda operation. There’s no guarantee it will solve this murder, however, it is guaranteed that thousands of Americans will now think someone in the Occupy movement is a murderer.