Trial By DNA

Trial By DNA

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted April 26, 2007 in DNA and the Law

gavelJerry Miller has become the 200th person to be exonerated in the United States using DNA evidence. He served 24 undeserved years in prison.

Imagine 50 years into the future when DNA testing is so simple, reliable, and commonplace that detectives at a crime scene have handheld PCR and data analysis machines. Collect a sample and analyze it on the spot. Plug the data into a wi-fi enabled PDA, run the database comparison, find the criminal or at least eliminate the suspects.

Trials would be simple and quick. Prosecutors, judges, and juries could focus on understanding the criminal’s motive and fair sentencing. Only DNA evidence would be needed to prove that someone committed the crime.

What do you think? What’s the future of criminal investigation using DNA?Could it really be so simple?

Not quite. According to Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, only 10 percent of felonies come with DNA samples available for testing. Of the 200 people who have been exonerated, 123 involved rape cases for which DNA evidence is more readily available.

And there are other problems with relying too much on DNA. Without faster methods of analyzing samples (at this point in time), the backlog of DNA grows and delays prosecutions. While waiting for trial, suspects are free to commit even more crimes. And, of course, DNA-based trials are still subject to the same problems as all others. Planted evidence, lab errors, and procedural mistakes can ensure that someone who’s guilty gets to go free. Or even worse, someone who’s innocent gets locked up for a quarter of a century.

Baltimore Sun, April 26, 2007

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Comment by Steve

WHAT??? You mean all the CSI shows have been lieing to us?? DNA isn’t ready instantly, or atleast later the same day???? How shocking! I’m so disillusioned!


Steve: You really shouldn’t be watching so much TV. ;)

Comment by Steve James

50 years? Easily within 10. Now, in 50 years, you will be arrested by the thought police for thinking of committing a crime, so these DNA analysis tools will be obsolete. I know because I saw it in a movie…

Comment by Barry S Subscribed to comments via email

I was thinking about this stuff the other day. Why do you think prosecutors fight so hard to keep DNA evidence out? I have trouble believing they are all so calculating that they want to put innocents to death to further their careers. How often are these DNA tests wrong (whether lab error or some other thing)? Do you think they’re worried about guilty folks going free?


Steve James: Hey! It’s my lucky day when all the Steves come to visit (I’ve got on in my house too).

Ok so back on topic. Ah yes, the thought police as epitomized by the marvelous Tom Cruise, Mr. Deep Thought himself.

Barry: Is that true? I had no idea prosecutors disliked DNA evidence. Or did you see that on TV too?! :P

According to this article by Edward Lazarus on prosecutorial resistance to DNA evidence for exonerating people convicted of crimes, prosecutors often face pressure from victims’ families not to admit error because they want to believe the case is closed and want to put it behind them. Interesting read.


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