Are the DNA Fingerprinting Laws Fair?

dna-lawsNearly everyone on both sides of the legal debate on DNA laws agrees that the current procedure for testing new technologies – a string of interminable pretrial admissibility hearings – is not the way to go. To avoid these expensive courtroom fights in the future, there have been calls for the establishment of an ad hoc expert group, a National Committee of Forensic DNA Typing, whose primary job would be to evaluate new approaches.

This committee should also oversee the collection of blood samples for the population studies, and advise the courts on statistical questions as well. The committee would be composed of molecular geneticists, population geneticists, ethicists and lawyers. It would be housed in the National Institutes of Health or the National Institute of Standards and Technology, with support from the National Institute of Justice and the National Science Foundation.

The acceptance of DNA fingerprinting is going through the same type of debate that ink fingerprinting went through, with questions about whether more than one person could have the same print, whether there could be abuse by police, and the methods of taking samples. Considering all factors of DNA fingerprinting that have been presented in the courtroom, it does appear that the widespread acceptance of DNA testing in court is close to realization. However, it remains to be been what standards will be placed on the testing procedures and the labs performing the tests.

In a report issued by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the committee came out strongly in favor or mandatory accreditation of DNA typing labs and mandatory proficiency testing. The problem is that this new technology came to the forefront so rapidly that there are essentially no standards and no regulations. This is especially disturbing since the largest potential source or error lies in poor laboratory practice. The group urges Congress to adopt legislation requiring accreditation of all DNA typing labs and recommends that the courts allow DNA evidence to be admitted only if the laboratory has been accredited. They delegate the task of setting up the program to the Department of Health and Human Services in consultation with the Department of Justice.

At least 15 men have been freed after serving time when comparisons of their DNA failed to match evidence gathered at crime scenes. If even one out of 1,000 wrongly convicted justly goes free, the costs would be substantiated. The ink fingerprint had to pass the test. So will the genetic fingerprint. Why not perfect the technique and gauge the judicial system’s acceptance of DNA fingerprinting by freeing the innocent while attorney and scientist battle it out in court?

DNA fingerprinting, like ink fingerprinting, must go through various levels of acceptance and testing to determine its true usefulness. This process, if taken through the already over-crowded courts, will undoubtedly take years to perfect. Therefore, it is important to realize that while these battles wage onward and as DNA fingerprinting does gain the acceptance of the criminal justice system, it is to the advantage of that same system to use the conclusive science as a means to exonerate those wrongly convicted.

In a few years, it will be apparent that DNA fingerprinting is a major player in the evidence arena. It is evident now that there will seldom be a rape or murder trial brought into a courtroom without the most advanced forensic evidence – DNA fingerprinting. But is it fair for an innocent man to spend even one more day in prison when the means for his freedom exists, but is not made easily available because the debate of its accuracy wages on in court?

The results for the innocent man would be conclusive. There is no need for scientific evaluation or questions about the admissibility of the evidence in a court. DNA fingerprinting as a means of exonerating those wrongly convicted is an accurate, more reliable science than the statistical probabilities that must be accounted for in a conviction based on DNA evidence. Therefore, while scientists perfect the testing methods, the government establishes standards and the courts decide upon admissibility standards for DNA fingerprinting, the technology should be used more for the exoneration of those wrongly convicted instead of a means for attorneys to impress a jury with scientific hocus-pocus. One of the most compelling reasons for introducing more vigorous DNA laws is to confirm its role in strengthening child molestation laws.

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