Academic journal article International Social Science Review

A Moratorium on the Presentation of DNA Evidence

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

A Moratorium on the Presentation of DNA Evidence

Article excerpt

In recent decades, DNA evidence has become something of a pop-culture phenomenon. It can be found in popular magazines, in children's books, and on television. All too often, DNA evidence is shown as irrefutable fact, a scientific fingerprint that allows for a black-and-white determination of guilt or innocence. Unfortunately, such depictions are inaccurate and dangerous.

On October 12, 2017, the state of Texas executed Robert Lynn Pruett. Warden James Jones carried out the death sentence that Pruett received more than fifteen years earlier for the 1999 murder of prison guard Daniel Nagle. (1) At first glance, the case against Pruett seemed strong. Pruett was serving a ninety-nine-year sentence for a 1995 murder, and Pruett and Nagle often clashed. In fact, one of Nagle's last acts as an officer was to reprimand Pruett. During the trial, one of Pruett's fellow prisoners testified that he saw Pruett kill Nagle. Especially important to the case was the DNA evidence: a lab analyst testified that he found that Pruett's DNA was on the murder weapon. Based on this evidence, the jury convicted Pruett after a weeklong trial and sentenced him to die. (2)

On appeal, however, the evidence used at trial to connect Pruett to the crime was much less convincing. There was an eyewitness, but he was a notorious jailhouse informant and received a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony. Similarly, while officers found a murder weapon, it was never established that Pruett possessed it. The entire case boiled down to DNA, and even that was inconclusive. During Pruett's appeal, a second lab analyst examined the DNA on the weapon and determined that it could have come from thirty percent of the employees at the jail, and thirty-one percent of the population of the United States. (3) It was unconvincing evidence of guilt. Nonetheless, the scant DNA evidence, along with the inmate testimony, was enough for Pruett to be executed. (4)

Unfortunately, Pruett's case is not unusual, as faulty DNA collection or analysis persists across the entire criminal justice system. Indeed, this paper could have begun with the stories of any number of individuals exactly like Pruett, revealing an ugly truth: while the science behind DNA testing is strong, the gathering and application of DNA evidence is systematically flawed. These weaknesses lead to improper prosecution, provide an opportunity for evidence tampering and, as in Pruett's case, can result in misidentification and wrongful execution. Despite the serious consequences of misapplied DNA evidence, the justice system has not fully examined these issues. This paper attempts to address wrongful convictions by calling for a temporary moratorium on the presentation of DNA evidence at trial, implemented until federal standards are put in place to regulate the presentation of DNA evidence, and until robust studies indicate the prevalence of DNA transfer. (5) This paper will demonstrate that DNA analysis schemes are dangerously flawed and that they allow for various outcomes, ranging from understandable human error to the exploitation of an already unstable system. (6) It will then argue that the current reliance on DNA analysis differs from what its legislative creators intended, and will propose solutions to current problems in DNA testing procedures, including amending jury instructions, minimum prosecution guidelines, and handling standards. A moratorium is the best way to achieve such a holistic review.

The Science of DNA

Before examining issues related to DNA testing, it is necessary to understand what DNA is and how it is used in forensic investigations. DNA is the famous foundational molecule of genetics, the molecular building block of life. In technical terms, DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, a long string of nucleotides--genes--located within almost every cell of the human body. (7) DNA is a set of instructions for human development, determining stature, hair color, and eye color, among other qualities. …

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