The jury in the Robert Steven Wright murder trial heard yesterday from two forensic science experts, detailing for the court the profiles created from the DNA evidence, as well as the fingerprint identification as part of the investigation.
Wright is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Renée Sweeney, a Laurentian University music student. Sweeney was stabbed 27 times at the video store where she worked. She died of her injuries at the scene on Jan. 27, 1998.
The case went unsolved for many years until a technological breakthrough from a company called Parabon Nanolabs. The primary investigator on the case, GSPS Sergeant Robert Weston, testified March 8 that the company was not only able to provide a composite based on a DNA sample but that they could provide ancestry, linking the DNA to two families: Secord and McAllister.
Though they are not related, there is a shared descendant, Wright’s father, Robert Sr. The DNA from the ancestry profile done by Parabon indicated it would be one of Robert Wright Sr.’s children; he has two sons, Robert Steven “Steve” and Christopher.
The person who used new technology to provide the DNA sample the company used, Tara Brutzki, testified today.
Manager of the biology section at the Centre for Forensic Sciences in Sault Ste. Marie, Brutzki is a certified expert in bodily fluid identification, DNA analysis and interpretation and statistics relevant to DNA testing.
Brutzki testified she would reexamine the case as new technology would become available, noting that at one point, only four points of DNA were known and could be matched; today, it’s 15.
She re-examined all the evidence in 2013, and then again in 2018 and testified to her findings Thursday (March 9).
DNA is a genetic blueprint or set of instructions for all living things, Brutzki said, and greater than 99 per cent of our DNA is the same in every human, the basic code for creating our general form, shape, and organs.
Then, there are the slight differences that add codes for hair colour, eye colour, but also, “what we can’t physically see,” said Brutzki. “These are the regions that are of use for science, to look at DNA and make comparisons.
Each person, she said, has half their DNA from their mother, and half from their father.
She also testified that “science is continually evolving and progressing and they are never 100 per cent certain with anything.”
In these cases, she stated, DNA science offers a probability statistic. Essentially, the likelihood that there is another, unrelated person who has this exact DNA profile. It is explained as “excluded” or “cannot be excluded,” and then a statistic, she testified.
Through the years, Brutzki was able to increase the number of “locations” they could use on each DNA profile to compare to another sample.
First, she was able to identify and create a profile for four individuals and different DNA samples found on the evidence collected and submitted by Sudbury Regional Police from the scene of the crime, as well as the dog-traced path that located the jacket and gloves.
The first profile was female. She compared it to other evidence containing blood stains from Sweeney’s body.
“The blood that was tested from the stains on the jacket found on the path cannot be excluded as Sweeney’s,” Brutzki testified. Meaning she either is the source or that there is someone unrelated to Sweeney who coincidentally shares her DNA. The probability of that, said Brustzki, is ”one in 15 quintillion.”
The fingernail clippings from Sweeney's left hand, taken during the post-mortem exam by Dr. Kelly Uren and Sudbury Regional forensics officer Leo Thibeault, contained only female DNA, which could not be excluded from Sweeney.
Brutzki testified she also examined the blood-soaked cotton gardening glove, Sweeney's right-hand nail clippings and the jacket, referred to by Brutski by its brand, High Sierra.
These items revealed three other profiles, in addition to Sweeney. Three male profiles.
Brutzki testified she could exclude John Fetterly as the source of the DNA under Sweeney’s right fingernails.
In 2018, after Weston had worked on the ancestry and family tree with Parabon Nanolabs and family members of Secord and McAllister families, they narrowed their search to the Wright family.
Police obtained what is called “cast-off or discard samples,” said Brutzki, which are samples not directly obtained by police, but that police watch the person in question discard the item and police collect it.
In the case of Fetterly, retired forensic officer Rick Waugh testified that police used cigarette butts they watched him discard.
Another discard sample came from Wendy Wright, the defendant's mother.
Brutzki compared the maternal DNA sample to the three male samples. Wendy Wright was “excluded” as the biological mother on the sample found on the gardening gloves.
Next to be compared was the jacket, and what Brutzki referred to as a piece of “debris” that had fallen from the nail into the sealed storage cup. Brutzki testified this was the most “fulsome result,” in that it could be matched to another sample in all 15 locations needed.
Wendy Wright “could not be excluded” as the biological mother of these two samples, both from different men. It is 18,000 times more likely that Wendy Wright is the biological mother than a random coincidental person for the fingernail sample. That likelihood is 330 times more likely for the jacket. “The science supports that Wendy is the mother of the two individual samples,” Brutzki testified.
A week later, in Nov. 2018, Brustki testified she received from Sudbury Police more cast-off DNA from the Wright family: from Robert Sr.; Christopher, the defendant’s brother; and Wright himself.
Christopher Wright could not be excluded as the donor of the DNA sample taken from the jacket. The likelihood that it is a coincidental, unrelated, random person is one in greater than one trillion.
Robert Sr. could not be excluded as the donor of the DNA sample on the white gloves, described as gardening gloves. Wendy Wright was excluded as the mother of this sample.
The debris from the container that contained the right hand fingernails and swabs from the nails themselves were then compared.
Robert Steven Wright could not be excluded as the source of these samples. The likelihood that it is another random, unrelated person is one in greater than one trillion, or for the swabs, one in 8.2 million.
When co-defense attorney Bryan Badali cross-examined Brutzki, he focused on her methodology and process and questioned the contamination prevention methods. He also confirmed that Brustzki could not testify to when the DNA had been left, or how.
Also Thursday heard testimony from OPP Sgt. Jeffrey Myatt, is an expert in fingerprint identification and shoe print identification.
He testified that in 2019 he was sent the photos of the shoe prints taken from the bathroom at the Adults Only Video, those that were revealed with forensic officer Todd Zimmerman testified on March 1 to using a chemical called Leucomalachite Green, that would reveal any blood that could not be seen with the naked eye.
Myatt said that the shoe prints were suitable for comparison to a provided sample, though he was never sent the Brooks shoe that Waugh testified he obtained in 1998 at the New Sudbury Centre’s Sears location.
He testified that the size of the shoe is not something that a shoe print can reveal, as many shoes that are similar in size have the same sole, with additional sizing added in the material on the top of the foot.
Myatt also testified under his expertise in fingerprint identification. He gave the jury background on his process, and then detailed his work on the two fingerprints that were found on the cash tray inside the video store, the ones falsely attributed to Fetterly.
He also testified that in fingerprint identification, they never use the term “match.” There is always the possibility of error in science, he said, so they consider it the same source if the chance it’s not is “so remote as considered a practical impossibility.”
He also testified that he cannot determine when or how the prints were left.
Myatt was asked to compare the prints from the cash tray to five “exemplar” fingerprint sets he was sent by Sudbury police. He testified he had no idea while testing who the prints belonged to.
Myatt tested the fingerprint referred to as R-46 from the cash tray. It was determined to be the right index finger of “exemplar four” of the five he was sent.
He then tested R-127. Myatt determined it was the left thumb of “exemplar four.”
He contacted Sudbury Police to offer this information. This is when Myatt learned what he testified to the identity of exemplar four.
“Exemplar four is Robert Steven Wright.”
Court resumes today, March 10 at 10 a.m.
Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com