Signs of Skepticism About DNA Forensics

Posted by Pete Shanks on December 1st, 2011

scales of justice

Scientific American has published an informed and skeptical editorial about the potential abuse of forensic DNA databases. It's titled rather dramatically "Stop the Genetic Dragnet" and opens with the issue of retaining the DNA of people who were arrested, tested, and then released without even being charged for a crime. Then it raises the important privacy issues involved in possible familial searching (and endorses the limitations that apply in California). And it calls for the destruction of any DNA samples taken once the limited identification markers have been stored, to prevent against later abuse. It concludes:

DNA is not just a technological progression from fingerprinting. It is qualitatively different. As such, it needs to be treated as more than a mere formality of a police booking procedure.

There are other signs that this kind of concern is becoming widely understood. For instance, the New Jersey Star-Ledger published an editorial this summer, "Collecting DNA from suspects is a slippery slope." The Chicago Sun-Times offered only qualified support for a limited expansion of the Illinois system for gathering DNA (only for serious crimes, with probable cause) while noting:

If more attempts to expand the DNA database are made, we'll oppose those efforts and hope wiser heads prevail.

There have been articles in The Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal about the debates over privacy. The Hastings Center Report featured a piece by Osagie Obasogie and Troy Duster. The Atlanta Post published a critical Op-Ed. Police in both Chicago and St Louis are complaining about having their own DNA collected. And this rumble of concern is building while various constitutional challenges seem to be slowly heading for the Supreme Court.

Ironically, prosecutor abuse may be a factor in raising awareness of the potential problems. The New York Times ran a long magazine feature on prisoners who were charged or convicted on confessions they insist were coerced, for whom prosecutors refused to accept DNA evidence that would clear them. In one case, that occurred even though the convicted man was under electronically verified house arrest at the time of the crime.

In another, a juvenile rape and murder victim was found to have testable sperm in her "vagina, anus and mouth," and when it was finally tested it did not match that of the accused. Two years later, after that DNA was definitively matched to someone else (who was by then a convicted rapist), the original accused was released, on "reasonable doubt" grounds, but the prosecutor's initial response was:

[She] could have got the sperm on her while playing in the woods, where couples might have sex.

(He also concocted a bizarre fable about how the girl could have inadvertently touched the fruits of masturbation performed in her absence, and "unknowingly transferred it elsewhere," perhaps after she urinated. This he called a "plausible scenario.")

Public misinformation about the use of forensic DNA has got so bad that Sorenson Forensics, a leading provider of DNA analysis services to law enforcement, has actually issued a press release, picked up here, on the "Top 10 TV crime lab myths." Does all this presage a more balanced approach? And will public education lead to legal clarification? Or, indeed, the other way round.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Posted in DNA Forensics, Media Coverage, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts


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