Friday, August 04, 2006

Beyond three letters

I'm truly happy that the federal government is investing so much money in DNA funding. For certain crimes, especially sexual assaults, and as an aid in identifying John and Jane Does, this will be a big help. It will allow more states to expand their DNA databases, and to catch up on huge backlogs of this type of evidence. It is useful in exonerating individuals, and can prevent police from pursuing false leads. For all these reasons and more, it's absolutely essential that we address the DNA backlogs.

According to an article in the Contra Costa Times, in California, the state lab has "about 275,000 (samples) to process." As far as I can tell, that's not counting samples in other labs throughout the state. California isn't alone in this situation. Many states are in a race against a legal clock: trying to beat statute of limitations snags that apply to older cases, which have already allowed violent felons to escape prosecution for earlier attacks. So DNA funding needs to be adequate and immediate.

But Americans must not limit their support of forensic science to DNA funding alone.

Why not? For many reasons, these among them:

*According to a study by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, DNA evidence is a small percentage of the work done by crime labs. Additionally, many labs, law enforcement agencies, and coroners/ME's offices don't even have the computers they need to track evidence -- these basic needs affect the ability of labs to work with DNA and all other kinds of evidence.

*The FBI's Crime in the United States estimated that 66% of the 16,137 murders in 2004 were committed with firearms. There is an extreme shortage of firearms evidence examiners in the U.S. Because guns often kill from a distance and don't require the shooter to touch the victim, DNA is unlikely to be of use in investigating most of these murders.

* Traffic fatalities involving drunk driving in that same year were higher than the total murder rate -- 16,694 in 2004, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Toxicology tests are needed to investigate such cases. DNA does not prove whether a person was intoxicated or otherwise chemically impaired while driving.

*DNA works by comparison. When a sample of an unknown suspect's DNA is taken from a crime scene or victim, it can't help solve a crime until it is found to match that of a known individual. The known individual's DNA sample is usually obtained in one of two ways:

1) law enforcement detectives use other evidence (such as fingerprints, trace evidence, footwear impressions) and investigative techniques to find a suspect. Subject to evidence law, an arrested suspect's DNA is sampled at that point. If it matches the crime scene DNA, the case goes forward. So other kinds of evidence were important even in this situation.

2) if no suspect is known, then a DNA "cold hit" is needed. This happens if an unknown suspect's crime scene DNA is matched to the DNA of someone known because he or she is in the DNA database. This happens more and more often as the DNA database grows, and makes DNA more powerful as a crime-fighting tool. But ask yourself how that individual's DNA got into the database in the first place. Usually, through a felony conviction (state laws vary re: whose DNA is sampled). And how did the felony conviction come about? Very often, through other kinds of evidence, and often for a different type of crime -- burglary, drug possession, etc. That means, for example, that a toxicology test in a drug possession case may lead to a DNA sample going into the database and ultimately helping with a cold hit in a rape case or a murder. On the other hand, if these other kinds of evidence are backlogged or ignored, that individual's case may be dismissed and a chance to obtain a DNA sample lost. Read DNA cold hit news stories carefully, and you will almost always see that another type of forensic science was involved in convicting the criminal who gave that database sample.

*Latent prints (fingerprints) lead to many more arrests each year than DNA, can usually be obtained more quickly, and at a fraction of the cost. The database for fingerprints is many times larger than that of DNA. Yet this area is grossly underfunded on the local level -- the nation's law enforcement agencies are often relying on outdated technology, do not have the basic equipment they need to make use of databases, and do not have the trained personnel on hand to properly obtain fingerprints from arrestees and convicts. Interoperability is also a huge issue that we should use our resources to resolve.

*Let's take the case of DNA being used to identify a body in the woods. And perhaps to tell us who had contact with the body. Even if DNA can be used to answer those key questions, taken alone, it doesn't tell us if the contact was for a legitimate reason, and it can't tell us the cause of death, how long the body has lain there, if the dead person died there or elsewhere, if the individual was drugged, or answer many other questions. Answering "Who?" is an important part of any criminal investigation, but what, where, how, when, and many other questions must also be answered. That requires more than one form of evidence.

DNA is a valuable form of evidence, and as new research and developments in technology continue, it will only become more valuable. But we should not believe that it is the only form of evidence we should pursue or fund. That's a case that can't be made.

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