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About DNA Forensics

DNA technologies have radically reshaped the role of forensics in police work. Even small amounts of blood, saliva, or other biological materials left at a crime scene can now lead to the identification or elimination of a suspect. Genetic evidence has been used both to convict perpetrators and to exonerate people who were wrongfully convicted on less reliable evidence, including scores of people on death row.

DNA typing is typically quite accurate when used to tell whether an unknown sample matches another sample that has already been identified. This is not to say that this process is without problems; simple human error, sample contamination, and misinterpretations have been known to skew results.

The development of forensic DNA databases--in which hundreds of thousands of profiles are stored with the intention of catching recidivists--has given rise to new sets of problems such as miscalculations of the statistical probability that an unknown sample coincidentally matches a stored profile. In some cases, what are touted as rare "one-in-a-million" odds of being a coincidental match are actually significantly more likely once other relevant factors (such as database size) are taken into consideration. Such information has, on occasion, not been revealed to juries.

Nevertheless, the compilation of DNA databases has been increasing dramatically. In many jurisdictions, both in the US and abroad (especially in the UK), they now include people who may have been arrested for but never convicted of a crime. This raises privacy issues in addition to issues of racial discrimination since minorities have disproportionately higher contact with police and are therefore overrepresented in these databases.

DNA At the Fringes: Twins, Chimerism, and Synthetic DNAby Erin E. MurphyThe Daily BeastOctober 7th, 2015DNA tests are thought to be conclusive proof—of crime, of family relation—but our genetic material acts in mysterious ways, and chimerism may “undermine the very basis of the forensic DNA system.”
Advances in DNA Testing Could Put Thousands of Texas Cases in Legal Limboby Meagan FlynnHouston PressOctober 5th, 2015Problems with prior mixed DNA testing analysis and statistical claims cast doubt on some DNA-based criminal convictions in the state of Texas.
Prop 47 Could Purge DNA Databaseby Kristina DavisThe San Diego Union-TribuneSeptember 27th, 2015California’s Proposition 47 reduced certain low-level, nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors, but the fate of the consequent DNA collection is unclear.
Who has your DNA—or wants itby Jocelyn KaiserScienceSeptember 25th, 2015More and more groups are amassing computer server–busting amounts of human DNA. Science's informal survey found at least 17 biobanks that hold—or plan to hold—genomic data on 75,000 or more people.
Can 23andMe have it all?by Kelly ServickScienceSeptember 25th, 2015Amid 30 recent deals with biotech and pharma companies, 23andMe hired Genentech retiree Richard Scheller who plans to hire 25 scientists in the next year to begin drug development based off the direct-to-consumer genomic database.
Prosecutor backs expanded DNA testingby Evan AllenBoston GlobeSeptember 17th, 2015A new Massachusetts bill would allow police officers to obtain genetic material at the point of felony arrest — creating what Justice Scalia calls the "genetic panopticon."
Kuwait's War on ISIS and DNAby Dawn FieldOxford University Press BlogSeptember 3rd, 2015Amid other national genomic projects, Kuwait's mandatory DNA collection is the first use of DNA testing at the national-level for security reasons, counter-terrorism.
‘Scientific Ambitions Behind DNA Profiling Bill’by Vidya VenkatThe HinduAugust 16th, 2015A legal researcher discusses a modified draft bill that continues to raise several critical concerns relating to privacy, and ethical uses of DNA samples and the proposed DNA database.
Cold Caseby Anne Fausto-SterlingBoston ReviewAugust 11th, 2015Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg likes to make faces. But she doesn’t paint or sculpt them, precisely. She doesn’t even decide what they look like.
One Penn State Professor Unmasks the Role Genetics Play in Human Faces
by Boen WangThe Daily CollegianAugust 7th, 2015Penn State scientist's attempts to map human faces from DNA samples provokes skepticism, and concern about consequences for DNA forensics and racial profiling.
Four Problems with the DNA Databaseby Sharon FernandesTimes of IndiaAugust 2nd, 2015India's Human DNA Profiling Bill 2015 proposes to set up a national DNA database of criminals that will include rapists, murderers and kidnappers.
Congress Should Support Access to Post-Conviction DNA Testingby Kirk BloodsworthThe HillJuly 29th, 2015"If not for post-conviction DNA testing, I might still be in prison, or worse, I could have been executed."
India’s DNA Profiling Bill May Become One of the World’s Most Intrusive Lawsby Akshat RathiQuartzJuly 24th, 2015India’s prime minister wants to ensure that DNA analysis is used more widely to convict criminals despite many flaws in the proposed bill.
Governor Signs Law that Expands Access to Post-Conviction DNA Testingby Maxine BernsteinThe OregonianJune 30th, 2015Oregon's governor has signed a bill that would expand access to DNA testing for people hoping to prove they were wrongly convicted.
Why the 'Devious Defecator' Case is a Landmark for US Genetic-Privacy Lawby Natasha GilbertNature NewsJune 25th, 2015A jury awarded $2.25 million to employees whose privacy was violated when their employer conducted genetic testing to determine fault in a job-site incident.
Can DNA Testing be Trusted? The Shockingly Imprecise Science of a Proven Courtroom Toolby Katie WorthFusionJune 24th, 2015Much DNA analysis involves interpretation. With interpretation comes subjectivity, and with subjectivity can come error.
Crime-Scene DNA Errors Spark Complex Legal Questionsby Megan CassidyThe Arizona RepublicJune 22nd, 2015Prosecutors and bureau officials say the mistakes will have a minimal effect on criminal cases, but the real impact of the revelations in courtrooms across the country remains to be seen.
Building the Face of a Criminal From DNABBCJune 18th, 2015The face of a killer constructed from DNA left at the scene of a crime: it sounds like science fiction. But revealing the face of a criminal based on their genes may be closer than we think.
Why it’s so Hard to Keep Bad Forensics Out of Canada’s CourtroomsMetroNews [Canada]June 12th, 2015"The bottom line is, we love science. We naively believe that because we can put a rover on Mars, we can identify people through blood samples...without mistake. They’re not equivalent."
‘Devious Defecator’ Case Tests Genetics Lawby Gina KolataThe New York TimesMay 29th, 2015The case is an effort by an employer to detect employee wrongdoing with genetic sleuthing.
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