Genetic Witness: Science, Law, and Controversy in the Making of DNA Profiling

Genetic Witness: Science, Law, and Controversy in the Making of DNA Profiling

Genetic Witness: Science, Law, and Controversy in the Making of DNA Profiling

Genetic Witness: Science, Law, and Controversy in the Making of DNA Profiling

Synopsis

When DNA profiling was first introduced into the American legal system in 1987, it was heralded as a technology that would revolutionise law enforcement. This text uncovers the dramatic early history of DNA profiling.

Excerpt

For nearly a century, the law enforcement community has been searching for a forensic silver bullet—a foolproof technique that can identify absolutely the perpetrator of violent acts from the physical traces left at the crime scene and provide a tool for tracking and surveillance of past and future criminals. Throughout this history, various techniques have emerged as potential candidates, including fingerprinting, anthropometrics (the systematic measurement of body parts), and the voiceprint. All of these techniques, however, were eventually shown to have technical and practical restrictions.

In 1984, the most recent of these contenders was invented in England by a geneticist named Alec Jeffreys: forensic DNA profiling. Heralded by judges and prosecutors as the “greatest advance in crime fighting technology since fingerprints,” numerous press accounts proclaimed that the technique would “revolutionize law enforcement.” In many ways, it has. In the past two decades, DNA evidence has been used to solve countless violent crimes, putting thousands upon thousands of rapists and murderers behind bars and inducing guilty pleas from thousands more. The FBI's nationwide index of DNA profiles now contains more than 4 million criminal profiles and has led to more than 45,400 “hits” since it was put into place in 1994.

Today it is widely considered to be the best method of forensic identification ever created. Even defense attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, who orchestrated the three most widely publicized challenges to the validity and reliability of forensic DNA analysis (People v. Castro, United States v. Yee, et al., and People v. Orenthal James Simpson), now call DNA testing “a gold standard for truth telling.” According to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, it is a “truth machine.”

Law enforcement agencies, politicians, and prosecutors all rely on DNA evidence as one of the most important weapons in the fight against violent crime. Fortythree states require that all individuals convicted of felonies submit DNA samples to a central DNA database, and all fifty states participate in the FBI's . . .

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