2000 — the year in review:
The truth is in your genes
With a little help from popular culture, the concept of DNA testing has become as familiar to the public as it has become essential to law enforcement, yet the rules governing its use are by no means hard and fast. In fact, this year saw a challenge to the technology’s expanded use by a Justice Department panel, while schemes by prisoners and suspects threatened to topple belief in the technique’s infallibility.
Much to the dismay of some police and prosecutors, the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence said in November that it would recommend that the growing practice of using voluntary DNA samples to link the donor to other unsolved crimes be curbed. At present, police in Indiana, Illinois, Florida and New York employ it, but the tactic is outlawed in Alaska, Wisconsin and Vermont. California recently passed legislation that would allow the practice in limited form.
Police and prosecutors defended the strategy, claiming that it allows them to take full advantage of the technology to solve crimes. “We’re trying to do our job and protect the people,” said Darrell Sanders, chief of police in Frankfort, Ill., and a commission member who opposed banning the practice. “If we get someone’s DNA legally, how can we justify giving him a free pass on something else he once did?”
Defense attorneys, however, foresee the potential for abuse. “As it is, there’s nothing to stop police from setting up a DNA data base of ‘the usual suspects,’” said Barry Scheck, a commission member and lawyer who specializes in using DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions. “Having the [Justice Department] on the record as opposed is a good start toward eliminating this.”
But as the Justice Department sought to set some new ground rules in 2000, supporters of DNA sampling were clamoring to expand the testing of suspects to include all those charged with felonies and even use the technology to solve such routine cases as property crimes.
In North Carolina, proponents of a plan to collect samples from anyone arrested on felony charges began gearing up in August to fight for their proposal when the General Assembly reconvenes in 2001. Stalled in the state Senate over concerns about privacy and cost, the bill would have provided $40,000 to the state Department of Justice to run a one-year pilot program.
Police in Menomonee Falls, Wis., were given permission in October by a Waukesha County judge to collect a sample of DNA from the saliva used to lick a stamp in a mailed bomb threat case. The letter sent in February threatened to blow up the MG Industries plant and a manager’s house if the manager was not replaced.
The Virginia Division of Forensic Sciences reported in November that it had solved at least 250 cases over the past two years through cold hits made when a court-ordered DNA sample taken from a convicted felon matched samples in the state’s genetic data base.
To ease the backlog caused by all of the samples collected in state data bases around the country, the Justice Department announced in August that it would distribute $7 million to be shared by California, Florida, New York, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington. The grant marks the first time that the federal government has stepped in to help clear backlogs. An additional $7 million expected later in 2000 was to help 21 other states.
While a DNA match is seen by both defense attorneys and prosecutors as ironclad proof of guilt or innocence, several events last year threatened to shake the faith of testing supporters:
In January, British authorities admitted that a 1-in-37-million chance of mistaken identity occurred after forensic scientists at the nation’s DNA data base correctly matched evidence collected at a robbery scene to a genetic profile of a suspect who could not have committed the crime. The suspect’s DNA, lifted in 1999 by Manchester police, apparently matched four of points of comparison. When a retest was ordered following confirmation of an alibi, new technology that uses 10 comparison points eliminated the man as a suspect. FBI officials said the possibility of something similar occurring in the United States would be rare, noting that the bureau’s CODIS system uses a 13-point identification system. “If you are getting an inclusion over 13 markers, it is just impossible for you to have the wrong person,” said Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky, a forensic serologist and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
An inmate serving time for three rapes, Anthony Turner of Milwaukee, was sentenced to 120 years in prison after paying a woman $50 to use his sperm, which was smuggled out of prison, to stage a phony sexual assault. Police say Turner surmised that if his genetic material was discovered at the scene of another rape while he was incarcerated, it would then cast doubt on the technology on which his conviction was based.