DNA profiling involves comparing genetic material culled from a crime scene with genetic material taken from an individual suspected of the crime. The greater the degree of overlap between the two sets of genetic materials the greater the probability that the suspected individual is the perpetrator of the crime. Developed in the United Kingdom in the 1980s by geneticist Alec Jeffreys, the method was first used to determine paternity and then successfully applied to two rape-murder cases.
Originally, critics may have doubted whether each human has a unique genetic bar code or genetic fingerprint that can be extracted and read, but the method has withstood close scientific scrutiny. In 1992 a U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee put the chances of two unrelated individuals having the same DNA code at 1 in 1 million. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials estimate the chances as closer to 1 in 100 million. In addition, DNA testers have exonerated over 200 wrongly convicted individuals since 1989 by pointing out that the DNA of these individuals does not match the DNA in semen, blood, or saliva found at the crime scene.
In 2009 a study commissioned by the NAS cited DNA profiling as the new gold standard of forensic methods primarily because its development was subjected to the strictest scientific controls.
DNA Lab Abuses and Their Costs
Although the technique itself is good, it may not be properly used. As various crime lab scandals have shown, DNA evidence is only as good as its handling. Qualifications to be a DNA technicians are often minimal and appropriate training is not standardized or, in many cases, rigorous. In 2005, investigation into incompetence at the Houston Police Department crime lab revealed poor training, lax supervision, and an institutional disregard for the integrity of its analysis of forensic evidence, especially DNA testing. In New York in 2006, more than 800 rape cases were reviewed for mishandling of DNA evidence when it was discovered that a lab technician’s processing of samples had resulted in comingled rape kits and overlooked evidence. Notoriously, in 1995 the defense team of O. J. Simpson was able to cast doubt on the validity of DNA evidence that linked Simpson to the murders of his wife and her friend by bringing out testimony that a lab trainee had carried the blood sample in her pocket for several hours before delivering it.
Further, there have been cases of DNA lab workers lying about their credentials when applying for the job or while testifying in court. Understaffing and the need for speed have resulted in the fabrication of results for tests that were never performed. The objectivity of some DNA lab workers is also in question where a lab is part of the police department or prosecutor’s office. As “part of the team,” technicians may be swayed in interpretation or analysis of evidence by a pro-prosecutor bias. If police or prosecutors tell the lab workers what they think about a particular crime before any tests are performed, that also may put the lab worker’s objectivity at risk.
Improving DNA Labs
Many favor an accreditation system as a way to avoid negligence or incompetence in forensic laboratory technicians. Accrediting agencies, however, can themselves be lax, and accredited labs can themselves be guilty of abuses. Aiming to remedy the abuses and improve the accountability of DNA labs, committees of the NAS, other forensic experts, and various legislators have made a number of recommendations.
One important recommendation is to set up an independent central crime lab that has oversight authority to set mandatory crime lab certification standards. This central lab would have the authority to sanction labs that did not comply with its standards of hiring, record keeping, testing, or testifying. Another recommendation is to make sure that lab employees would be liable for any criminal acts they commit on the job. One other recommendation is to make DNA labs independent of police departments and prosecutor offices and to emphasize that the lab serves the public, not the police or prosecutors.
Some see the lab abuses as the work of a few bad apples. Regarding them as isolated cases, they do not favor increased oversight. Others, however, are convinced that increased oversight will improve the quality of the work done by DNA labs and in this way promote justice and fight against injustice.
- James, Nathan. “DNA Testing in Criminal Justice: Background, Current Law, Grants, and Issues.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. (2012).
- FAS Federation of American Scientists. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41800.pdf (Accessed September 2013).
- Lazer, David, ed. DNA and the Criminal Justice System: The Technology of Justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.
- “Using DNA to Solve Crimes.” In Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology. U.S. Department of Justice. http://www.justice.gov/ag/dnapolicybook_solve_crimes.htm (Accessed September 2013).
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