DNA Code Only a small fraction of our total DNA makes us different from gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates. An even smaller fraction makes one person different from the next. It’s these differences that forensic DNA experts use to identify people and determine the source of biological evidence such as blood or semen found at a crime scene. DNA testing is powerful, sensitive and effective in pointing to the guilty and absolving the innocent. To date, 67 convicted felons have been exonerated nationwide based on DNA evidence.
The vast majority of those have been rape cases. But DNA testing as it is now performed raises a question as to whether the public should fear that an innocent person may be wrongfully convicted or a legitimate suspect excluded from consideration. Should we be concerned that the government can order the collection of one’s DNA for purposes of identification, much like a set of fingerprints? DNA contains much more personal information than a fingerprint. Recognizing the importance of DNA, our government sponsored the Human Genome Project in 1990 to determine the sequence of DNA sub-units within each of our 46 chromosomes. The complete sequence will be deciphered within the next few years.
With this information, there will be dramatic advances in many medically related areas, giving doctors the ability to predict illness, make better diagnoses and perform gene therapy to correct sometimes deadly genetic defects. DNA online With the development of specialized machines, it is now relatively easy to make millions of copies of any gene and determine its sequence. With the same equipment, we can determine the genetic composition of anyone who becomes a suspect in a crime. This information can be incorporated into a local, state or national database for future use. In 1998, the FBI laboratory brought its National DNA Index System online. DNA profiles from convicted offenders and crime scene evidence submitted by forensic labs are combined into a single national database.
As a result, DNA evidence found at a crime scene in New York can be used to identify a suspect in Virginia if a matching profile is found. New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir has proposed that all those convicted of any crime be required to submit a specimen of their cells for analysis and that their DNA profiles become part of the state’s database. The city’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, has gone even further and endorsed the idea of collecting DNA samples from everyone at birth. Both say the benefits associated with increased testing are well worth the cost to the taxpayer. But do we have anything to fear from universal DNA testing? Many argue that the innocent certainly have nothing to worry about. The perfect science? Forensic DNA analysis is held in such high esteem that it has developed a reputation of infallibility. But is it really the perfect science or can analysts make mistakes? A mistake could cost a suspect his liberty or even his life. This almost happened in England, where a DNA test matched an innocent man to a burglary crime scene. Based on a test using six genes, he was deemed the likely source of the crime scene evidence.
He matched the evidentiary profile perfectly. But in a more rigorous 10-gene analysis, conducted because he presented a very strong alibi, he was excluded as a suspect. Britain’s DNA database is the largest in the world, consisting of almost 700,000 profiles. When it comes to criminal matters, civil liberties in Britain are apparently less of a concern than they are in the United States. Most English subjects tend to volunteer specimens when police ask them to do so.
As with any medical procedure, one must weigh the benefits of DNA testing against any potential downside. There are clearly a number of ethical and legal issues that must be addressed. How can we be sure that someone won’t gain access to your genetic profile and sell it to a prospective employer or insurance company? It’s a frightening thought, but political candidates may one day find themselves compelled to provide samples of their DNA. Genetic profiles could then influence the way people vote. The good, the bad and the ugly Everything we are is in our DNA — personality, behavioral traits, intelligence, the likelihood of developing a disease. In other words, the good, the bad and the ugly. To avoid the potential for abuse, the government should just retrieve identifying information from the samples and destroy the rest. I believe that while there are no easy answers, DNA testing is extremely valuable as a crime-fighting tool — as long as safeguards are in place to prevent abuse and ensure that genetic information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
We all want to see an end to violent crime, but at what cost? Should we take samples from all those arrested regardless of how serious the charge? Should we test everyone at birth? Should we be concerned that governmental police agencies may soon possess our total genetic blueprint? With the phenomenon of computer hacking that now confronts us, should we worry about database security? What do you think? Lawrence Kobilinsky, Ph.D., is a professor of forensic science and associate provost at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is an internationally recognized expert in the areas of serology and DNA analysis and serves as a consultant to the U.S. State Department. THIS WEEK: Going Mindhunting More About John Douglas UNSOLVED FEATURE New Test IDs Victim Linked to Green River Case Brings to 42 the Number of Women Accounted For PREVIOUS KOBILINSKY COLUMNS Building a Case From a Drop of Blood How Far Should DNA Collection Go? Body of Evidence More About Lawrence Kobilinsky KOBILINSKY BOOK LIST LAWRENCE KOBILISNKSY EVENTS improve its use as a tool of investigation and adjudication in criminal cases. The Commission will address issues in five specific areas: (1) the use of DNA in post-conviction relief casesview published report, (2) legal concerns including Daubert challenges and the scope of discovery in DNA cases, (3) criteria for training and technical assistance for criminal justice professionals involved in the identification, collection and preservation of DNA evidence at the crime sceneview published pamphlet, (4) essential laboratory capabilities in the face of emerging technologies, and (5) the impact of future technological developments on the use of DNA in the criminal justice system.
Each topic will be the focus of in-depth analysis by separate working groups comprised of prominent professionals who will report back to the Commission.