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New study shows that touch DNA may implicate the innocent

Although DNA evidence has been a legitimate method used by law enforcement officials for many years, questions are beginning to loom as to its reliability and accuracy.

For years, DNA collected from skin cells that have been left on objects such as doorknobs or weapons has been used as evidence in criminal cases.  However, a new study has found that DNA from skin cells can be transferred to an object without a person actually touching it.  This important new information has led many to question the reliability of “touch DNA.”

Although some may be familiar with the term “touch DNA,” its definition is not commonly known, especially since it is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Touch DNA “analyzes skin cells left behind when assailants touch victims, weapons or something else at a crime scene.”

The publication Scientific American explained how touch DNA works.  The process begins when investigators recover skin cells from the scene of a crime.  They then make several copies of those cells through a process called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Next, scientists mix in certain fluorescent compounds that attach to 13 specific locations in the DNA.  These locations give a genetic portrait of a specific person, thus, singling out whose DNA is at the crime scene.  The entire process takes only a few days.

Although many law enforcement officials and crime scene investigators believe that DNA is a valuable tool proven to be necessary and helpful, touch DNA evidence may do more harm than good.

If you don’t bring in the appropriate amount of skepticism and restraint in using the method, there are going to be miscarriages of justice.

For example, in December 2012 Lukis Anderson, a homeless man, was charged with the murder of Raveesha Kurma, a multimillionaire, based solely on touch DNA evidence.  The prosecutors seemed to have everything they needed to convict Anderson, but there was one major problem: Anderson had a rock-solid alibi.  On the night of the murder Anderson was hospitalized after being found drunk and nearly unconscious.  He was under medical supervision for most of the night.  Anderson’s legal team later discovered that the same paramedics who had treated Anderson that day, responded to the murder scene and inadvertently placed Anderson’s skin cells at the scene when in fact, he had never been there.

This case was presented this past February at the annual American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Las Vegas.  It was used to show that there are a growing number of incidents in which the transfer of DNA implicates innocent individuals.  Questions are being raised as to whether or not the criminal justice system should rely so heavily on DNA samples alone, or whether additional methods should be required.

Erin E. Murphy, a law professor at New York University believes that although the criminal justice system often hopes for DNA evidence to “seal the deal” on criminal convictions, we are still dealing with a flawed system.  “If you don’t bring in the appropriate amount of skepticism and restraint in using the method, there are going to be miscarriages of justice,” Murphy said.

The most significant, is that it can lead to wrongful incarceration.

Since 1997, when scientists first discovered that it was possible to gather DNA evidence from skin cells left at a crime scene, touch DNA has become increasingly common.  In fact, companies now sell kits to law-enforcement officials that can generate full genetic profiles off of as little as 3 to 5 cells.  Independent labs also use these kits when trying to identify individuals who have been deceased for years or even decades.

In addition to the complications that can arise from touch DNA on the technical side, there are many legal issues that are implicated due to the incorrect use and application of DNA.  The most significant, is that it can lead to wrongful incarceration.

The Innocence Project is an organization that investigates closed-cases and works to exonerate individuals who have been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated.  Since its founding in 1992, the Innocence Project has exonerated 342 individuals by DNA and found 147 of the criminals who actually perpetrated the crimes.

The Innocence Project found that on average, those who are wrongfully convicted, spend more than 14 years behind bars and when exonerees are finally released the state, in many cases, owes them compensation.  This compensation can come in the form of financial support for basic necessities, help securing affordable housing, assistance with education and development of job skills or even help expunging criminal records.

Surprisingly, not all states have compensation statutes.  In fact, in twenty-four states, there is no money awarded at all.  In addition to this, states that do provide compensation often attach conditions that can significantly limit the amount of compensation for an exonerated individual.  For example, New Hampshire caps compensation at $20,000 regardless of the length of time served and Montana provides educational aid, but no monetary compensation.  As if this was not enough, compensation may be subject to federal income taxes, lowering potential compensation even further.  Only the federal wrongful conviction compensation statute offers up to $50,000 per year for wrongful imprisonment and up to $100,000 per year for those on death row.

Regardless of which side you take, one thing is clear;  DNA evidence is not infallible. 

While the law in this area appears to push around individuals who are wrongfully convicted, some are pushing back.  Along with the Innocence Project’s tireless work, some members of Congress are noticing these disparaging laws and urging changes in the law.  Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) is one such person.  In 2012, Congressman Johnson introduced HR. 4241, Wrongful Convictions Tax Relief Act of 2012.  The purpose of the bill is to exclude from gross income “any civil damages, restitution, or other monetary award relating to the incarceration of such an individual” who was exonerated.  In other words, the bill seeks to prevent the government from collecting taxes on the monetary reward of a wrongful incarcerated person.

Although the results of touch DNA testing has raised eyebrows in recent years, most cannot deny the success of this type of testing, especially since it has been proven to be particularly reliable in cold-cases.  After all, touch DNA first became public in 2007 when it cleared JonbBenét Ramsey’s family of her murder and pointed to a “mystery killer” after DNA was found under nails that did not match any of her family members.

Undoubtedly there are opinions on both sides of the argument.  Some argue that touch DNA is highly unreliable and that skepticism should surround how DNA evidence is viewed, assessed and described.  Others believe that DNA is virtually the only way to prove guilt in difficult cases that involve sexual assault or arson, in which there are usually no witnesses.

Regardless of which side you take, one thing is clear;  DNA evidence is not infallible.  While it has put guilty criminals behind bars who have committed horrible crimes, it has also stolen innocent lives from those who have been wrongly accused.  So what is the solution?  That is the million-dollar question.  Whether it be more stringent testing in the laboratory or less weight in the courtroom, something must be done to ensure that more lives are not stolen and that more criminals do not go free, due to misleading DNA.

Kendra Alleyne, Associate Editor
About Kendra Alleyne, Associate Editor (17 Articles)
Kendra Alleyne is a third year law student and serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. She is from Lynchburg, Virginia and graduated from Liberty University for a degree in Broadcast Journalism. Over the summer following her first year of law school, Kendra worked as a legal internship at Colon & Associates, where she is currently still interning. Kendra also serves as the Public Relations Chair for Campbell University’s Black Law Student Association.
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