OF JUSTICE |
Do DNA databanks infringe on
July 17, 1998
in this forum:
If fingerprints are not invasions of privacy, why would DNA samples? Are they any constitutional problems with DNA evidence? Will DNA sampling result in genetic determinism? How much can we trust DNA evidence? Does DNA evidence favor the prosecution or the defense?
July 10, 1998:
Betty Anne Bowser reports on DNA identification and its impact on criminal investigations.
A state-by-state breakdown of legislation regarding DNA databanks.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of law.
A speech by head of the FBI's Combined DNA Index.
Aaron Gaudio of Corvallis, OR, asks:
Should we always trust DNA evidence?
Because DNA is so much more reliable, we have a tendency to trust it unquestionably. However, is there are danger that this fact could be misused, for example, to frame someone by planting or confusing DNA evidence? Is this danger increased when DNA is registered, making it more accessible to potentially crooked investigators?
Dr. Paul Ferrara of the Virginia Division of Forensic Sciences responds:
Certainly anything is possible, and I have read some fiction that has used this concept. I always try to emphasize that DNA evidence, as strong and reliable as it is, should always be considered with other physical and circumstantial evidence of motive, means and opportunity. Planting DNA evidence can also be very difficult; DNA evidence is often a mixture of different body fluids from different individuals (e.g. the victim, prior consentual sex partner(s)and the perpetrator(s)). Keeping in mind that the forensic scientist will isolate the DNA profile from all contributors, the logistics of pulling that off are formidable indeed (but never impossible).
Mr. Barry Sheck of the Benjamin Cordozo Law School responds:
The danger of potentially crooked investigators getting a blood sample from someone in the databank to frame an individual must, of course, be taken very seriously. I am a Commissioner of Forensic Science in the State of New York.
We have jurisdiction over all state crime laboratories and have set up policies to run our DNA databank. When blood samples are taken from inmates for our databank, the blood samples themselves are identified only by bar code in storage. The DNA profile derived from the inmates blood sample is then put into a computer and is bar coded again with a different bar code. Only a very limited number of individuals have access to the key that could connect the blood sample bar code to the DNA profile bar code. In other words, the number of individuals who could get access to the blood for planting purposes is very limited.
Moreover, we have made unauthorized access to either the sample or the DNA profile by anyone a felony. Unfortunately, most states have not taken this security issue as seriously as New York. In general, there is, without question, the potential to frame anyone with DNA evidence just as there is a potential to frame anyone with other highly reliable physical evidence, such as fingerprints.
Mr. Benjamin Keehn, a Boston defense attorney, responds:We know that, in some cases in the past, corrupt police officers and other law enforcement officials have abused their access to government evidence to plant evidence and "frame" individuals. It is easier to plant blood than fingerprints. It must be admitted therefore that the emergence of DNA data banks will create a potential for this sort of criminal fraud that did not previously exist. Officials running the Massachusetts DNA data bank have indicated that they intend to seize DNA by taking prisoners' blood and drying it, because this procedure permits the seizure of large amounts of DNA which can be stored indefinitely and tested again and again. If this becomes an accepted procedure nationwide, then it seems likely that, at least over time, somebody will attempt to abuse the process. Of even greater concern is the inevitability of unintentional mistakes being made. DNA testing is a technically complex procedure. People make errors with DNA just as often as in other activities. We know of at least two cases, one in Minnesota and one in California, where technicians in the state police DNA laboratory mistakenly switched samples, resulting in erroneous "hits." It was only sheer luck that unearthed the mix-ups in these cases, which could otherwise have had disastrous results. Given the inevitability of human error, it is safe to assume that eventually some mistakes will go undetected. Perhaps due to technical mystery, as well, forensic DNA testing has enjoyed an aura of infallibility that no complex technical process involving human handling really deserves.