Panel OKs DNA Fingerprints in Court Cases

By Ezzell, Carol | Science News, April 25, 1992 | Go to article overview

Panel OKs DNA Fingerprints in Court Cases


Ezzell, Carol, Science News


As currently practiced by a handful of laboratories, the genetic identification technique known as DNA fingerprinting offers a valid and useful way to collar criminals and exonerate innocent people, a panel of scientists and legal experts state last week. However, the panel recommended stricter standards to ensure the accuracy and proper interpretation of DNA fingerprints as the technology becomes more widely used.

Courts around the world have admitted DNA fingerprinting -- more properly known as DNA typing -- as evidence in hundreds of rape and murder cases (SN: 4/23/88, p.262; 7/29/89, p.74). Forensic scientists use DNA isolated from blood, semen or hair left at the scene of a crime to identify an assailant.

The technique relies on the fact that, except for identical twins, everyone's DNA is unique. In a common method of DNA fingerprinting, a laboratory technician uses enzymes to chip DNA samples taken from a suspect, the victim and the evidence. After sorting the resulting DNA pieces by size on a gel, the technician washes the gel with a solution containing four types of tiny DNA segments, or probes. The probes, which are labeled with radioactive compounds, show up as a characteristic ladder of black smears on photographic film. By matching the smears from a suspect's or victim's sample with those from the evidence, the technician can determine with a high degree of accuracy whether the suspect could be guilty of the crime.

Researchers calculate that only two or three people in the entire world share the same smear pattern that emerges using four probes. But because people tend to marry within their race, ethnic group or hometown, defense attorneys have argued that the frequency of a random match might be higher if an innocent suspect and the criminal were of the same race or came from the same city. Accordingly, a handful of courts have rejected DNA fingerprinting evidence because scientists could not agree on the likelihood of a false match in these instances.

To settle this controversy, the panel -- which was convened by the National Academy of Sciences -- endorses a so-called "ceiling principle" for interpreting DNA fingerprints. …

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Panel OKs DNA Fingerprints in Court Cases
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