Breaking Down a Maxxam Forensic Report

A forensic report is the formal release of results for all the testing that has been performed on the items that were submitted in a case. If a case is forensic, it is one which may ultimately be presented in court proceedings. The work that may be performed in a forensic case can include the testing for body fluid identification (blood, semen and saliva tests are done at Maxxam), trace material collection and preservation, hair collection and assessment for suitability for nuclear DNA analysis and of course, DNA analysis and interpretation. Once all of the necessary casework has been completed by trained and qualified staff, the entire file contents are reviewed by a forensic scientist. During this review, the scientist assesses whether all processes have been performed according to our protocols and whether all the required tests for the case have been completed. The results of all testing are then interpreted by the forensic scientist, who then, either calls for additional work to be done or sends out the results to be drafted into a forensic report.

An accredited lab, such as Maxxam, creates a standard format for the reports to ensure all of the required sections of information are detailed for the clients in every report. In fact, the accreditation body (Standards Council of Canada, in the case of Maxxam) assesses the forensic reports issued by Maxxam during our on-site audits to ensure we adhere to the necessary standards.

Firstly, the report must have a title and date which allows for the individualization of the report. This means that when a criminal matter has several reports issued, each can quickly be referred to in court.  This is important as extensive forensic investigations can have multiple submissions of items that were processed at different times.

Our reports list all of the relevant file numbers of the client(s) and the Maxxam file number which will be unique for each client investigation. The report also details who the clients are that are receiving a copy of the report and what type of case (homicide, sexual assault, assault, robbery, break and enter etc.) is being reported.

The next section of the report lists the items that were received and which were examined by detailing the item numbers and descriptions of each piece. This section also includes information regarding where the items were from. This information is usually based on information provided in the submission documentation but may also be from the packaging of the items. In forensic cases, we may not examine all items submitted. Depending on the case particulars and the results obtained from the items we do examine, we will leave items not examined so that they may be tested at other forensic laboratories such as when the defence wishes to have items analyzed.

The next three sections of the report are similar to what a typical scientific experiment would detail: Purpose, Methods and Results and Conclusions.

Typically, in a Maxxam forensic report, there are one or two purposes listed. The first purpose may be that submitted items were examined for the presence of body fluids, potential biological material and hairs. The second purpose may be to perform DNA analysis to determine whether a DNA profile, suitable for comparison purposes, could be generated. Part of that purpose can be to compare DNA profiles generated. DNA profiles can be compared between various crime scene samples in the case and also with DNA profiles generated from known reference samples provided by individuals involved in a case such as the complainant/victim, accused/suspect and others.

The “Methods” section of Maxxam forensic reports gives a brief outline of the types of testing performed in the case and points the reader to the end of the report where we provide a list describing the individual tests and their limitations that were conducted in the case.

We now move to the main reason for the report; the results and conclusions of the work performed.  The body fluid testing results are reported in chart form where the items that are being questioned are listed by item number and grouped by where they came from (scene, victim/complainant, accused/suspect, other). The results of all testing are conveyed for any body fluid (blood, semen and saliva) searches. We detail whether any hairs were found, collected and whether any were suitable to attempt to generate a human nuclear DNA profile. We list all samples that were taken from the items for DNA analysis and list the sample number for each DNA sample.

The next section then details the findings from the DNA analysis and interpretation. We will first report on any known reference DNA profiles generated from any known sample(s) provided in the case (as applicable). Then we move to the DNA samples that came from items/areas being questioned. To simplify this section we will either group all DNA samples which provided the same DNA profile, or we will group DNA samples together based on where the item came from (scene or a specific person for example).

A DNA result from a questioned sample can vary in quality and quantity of DNA present in the sample so the type of DNA profile we obtain can differ substantially. When there is limited DNA or poor quality DNA, a result can be that no DNA profile was generated from the sample or that the profile was too weak in quality to be useful to compare to other profiles generated. These profiles are reported as not being suitable for comparison purposes. Profiles which are ideal for comparison can also vary. A profile can be from a single person and contain complete information or maybe a partial profile where some of the DNA profile is missing. When we get DNA profiles that are mixtures of DNA that came from multiple people, we determine and report whether there is a suitable DNA profile that can be established from the mixture. Typically, a DNA mixture is ideal for comparison purposes when there are one or two significant contributors to the mixture that can be separated from any other minor DNA that may be in the mixture. If we cannot determine a suitable DNA profile, we will report the DNA mixture as being not suitable for comparison purposes.

When we have DNA profiles developed from the known samples of individuals, we compare these to the DNA profiles that came from the questioned samples. Where the profiles are different, the source of the known DNA profile cannot be the source of the questioned DNA sample and that person is excluded as being the source of the DNA from the questioned sample. But when a DNA profile from an individual is the same as the DNA profile we generated from the questioned item, we report that we cannot exclude them as a potential source of the DNA profile from the questioned item. To give an example, when blood is detected and sampled from the tip of a knife blade and submitted for DNA analysis, we may obtain a suitable DNA profile. We can compare this profile to the profile of the victim that was generated from their reference known sample. If the profiles are the same, we report that we cannot exclude the victim as the source of the blood on the tip of the knife. Anytime we are not able to eliminate an individual as the source of a questioned DNA profile we must follow up with an estimate of how rare the questioned DNA profile is in a population. To do this, we enter the DNA profile we generated from the questioned sample into a program that provides an estimate of how often you would expect to see this DNA profile in a sampling of randomly chosen people from a population. We need to do this because we don’t know the DNA profiles of all individuals on the planet.

Following the “Results and Conclusions” section, the next section of our reports is the DNA Databank section. This section is only relevant when we are processing cases from police agencies and only when we have the authorization to submit relevant DNA profiles for entry into the Canadian National DNA Databank. DNA profiles from designated criminal matters that do not come from the victim/complainant or other known individuals (who are not the suspect) can be submitted for review and entry in the National DNA Databank. In our forensic reports, we list the profiles that we are submitting to the National DNA Databank on behalf of the police agency.

The next section of our reports contains continuity and disposition information. Continuity means we can show that items and samples have been tracked while at Maxxam, we know they have been labelled correctly, correspond to what the client’s documents list and that every movement and storage for every item and sample is known. We list when the case arrived at Maxxam and by what means (personal delivery, courier and regular mail) and we list any waybill information as well. This section lets the client know that the items were retained in their original packaging under appropriate storage conditions and that all transfers of the items and samples have been documented. The report also indicates what is going to happen after testing with the items and all the samples we have generated in the case. Typically, for a forensic case, all items, samples and DNA that remains are all returned to the client for long-term storage and possible use for court. We also detail the turnaround time for the case from date of receipt (or date of last examination request) to the date of issuance of the report. Turnaround time can vary depending on the complexity of the case being examined. Routinely our forensic cases are reported within 40 days which is our contractual requirement with the RCMP. But in practice, our average turnaround time is closer to 20 days. Where rush analysis is requested, we do try to meet the requirements of the clients.

Finally, the report is signed by the reporting scientist. Below their signature, all options to contact the scientist are listed. This way, a client can contact the scientist directly should they have any questions about the report.

As mentioned above, our reports include an information sheet which is customized for every report to include the information about each test that was performed in the case being reported.  This information is the last section of our reports.

Once the reporting forensic scientist has the report drafted, they must get the entire file and report reviewed by a peer scientist. The entire file and drafted report is given to another forensic scientist to go through the file who then independently reviews all the documentation from case receipt to the interpretations of the reporting scientist and the drafted report. This review ensures two scientists have reviewed all of the information in the file, that both scientists come to the same interpretations and conclusions, that all results have been reported, nothing was missed and finally that all the work was scientifically sound and justified.

At Maxxam, we then perform one final step before issuing the report.  We ask another trained staff member to do an administrative review of the file and report. This last review is done usually by a technical staff member. The review is a read through of the report to ensure it reads well and is clear.  Other administrative checks are also performed during this review such as guaranteeing both scientists have initialled and dated every page of the file and that every page of the file has our case number on it.  These checks ensure no page has been missed and is within the correct file. This review has the added benefits of allowing technical staff to see the entire process for a case, how their work fits into the final product and that everything they do is essential to the quality standards we have set out for ourselves in performing forensic analysis.

Once all reviews are done, the reporting scientist converts the report to a pdf document, and they apply a digital signature to the report.  This ensures that should the digital report be altered, the signature of the scientist disappears from the pdf. The report can then be sent to the clients by means acceptable to them.

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