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Research & Grants

DNA Fingerprinting and Civil Liberties Project

Aims of the Project

The Significance of DNA to Forensic Investigations since September 11, 2001

History of Forensic Identity Testing

First publicly recognized use of DNA profiling in forensics

Admissibility of and Challenges to Forensic DNA Evidence in the Courts

Compiling DNA Databases: More Than Just Forensics

Forensic DNA Databases

The Current Situation

Why DNA Fingerprinting Poses Different Ethical/Social Issues from Regular Fingerprinting

National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence: Accomplishments and Issues Left Unexplored

Ethical Issues that Need to be Explored Research Methods

Literature Cited

Aims of the Project

The ethical, legal, and social issues arising from the use of DNA profiling have not been fully explored. Despite numerous commissions, conferences, and meetings centered on forensic genetics, few publications have addressed some of the most compelling ethical and social controversies.

This project aims to explore more fully the various positions on new and controversial issues surrounding DNA profiling and to educate policymakers so that they better understand privacy and civil liberty issues involved in the application of DNA technology to the criminal justice system. To these ends, a series of small workshops involving ethicists, lawyers, political and social scientists, forensic experts, defense lawyers and prosecutors, and representatives of prisoners and parolees, including members of the major ethnic groups represented in forensic DNA banks, will examine the issues. Discussions will be grounded on data in national and international statutes, regulations and laboratory procedures, collected for this project.

Workshop participants will produce position papers for publication in a special issue of the American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics (ASLME) Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, which, in addition to its regular subscribership, will be distributed to policymakers throughout the United States. Presentations will be placed on a website. Although consensus among the diverse participants may not be possible, clarification of possible institutional approaches to the issues and advantages and disadvantages of each approach would be of use to policymakers and professional organizations.

In order to educate policymakers, state legislators, judges, and district attorneys, a national education symposium, based on the workshop discussions, will conclude the project. The symposium will be held in Williamsburg, VA, because of its proximity to Washington, DC, to a major state forensic DNA laboratory and the National Center for State Courts. Scholarships will be awarded to two policymakers from each state to allow them to attend the symposium.

The Significance of DNA to Forensic Investigations since September 11, 2001

While DNA-based genetic analysis has a long-standing and important role in research, medical diagnostics, and in patient care, the central role of DNA profiling in forensic investigations has been emphasized in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. DNA-based genetic profiling has been a key tool for direct and indirect identification of hundreds of victims.

The utility of genetic profiling based on inherited DNA variation has come of age and has now gained almost universal acceptance as a forensic tool that is central to the proper and complete investigation of many civil and criminal matters. Such applications include use in civil matters involving claims of patient sample or nursery mix-ups, paternity testing, as well as probate and immigration disputes. DNA profiling of crime scene evidence and comparison to known samples from victims or suspects provides a powerful exculpatory or exclusionary tool that has proven fundamental in resolution of many investigations of felonies. Study of close relatives of missing persons and unknown soldiers provides an indirect method to assign identity to recovered remains that would otherwise be unidentifiable.

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History of Forensic Identity Testing

Human forensic identity testing can trace its modern origins to the late 19th century, when several individuals in Argentina and in Europe, including British geneticist Sir Francis Galton, recognized the utility of fingerprint ridge pattern analysis for forensic use. Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, was an early Mendelist who, with others, recognized that digital fingerprint analysis could be used for identification (Galton, 1892; Cole, 1998). Galton's own studies of the various fingerprint patterns on the volar surfaces of the distal phalanges revealed that even monozygotic twins have distinctive patterns. The use of such fingertip ridge analysis by the French and British police gained widespread adoption in Europe and Latin America in the late 19th century, and such methods spread rapidly to other police and investigative agencies around the world.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, laboratory methods were developed for discrimination of genetically determined variation in human red blood cell antigens. The central importance of these discoveries became clear with their use for serotyping those needing blood transfusions due to illness, during surgery, and especially during wartime or other armed conflicts. The human blood groups were quickly recognized as useful genetic markers for the study of human population genetics, and their forensic utility in paternity disputes, nursery mix-ups, and criminal investigations was quickly recognized.

For most of the past century, blood-group antigen typing and other laboratory techniques for detection of inherited variants in blood cell enzymes or serum proteins were widely used for paternity testing in both civil paternity and criminal paternity. While the discriminating power of blood group typing does not compare with that of DNA profiling, it was used throughout the world before the introduction of contemporary DNA-based genetic profiling. These blood-grouping techniques also were used for medical applications such as typing and cross matching for selection of suitable donors of blood and blood products, bone marrow, and whole-organ transplantation. During this same period, forensic applications of these techniques to tissue, blood, saliva, semen, and other body fluids from both evidentiary and known samples obtained as dried stains or as liquid or solid samples at crime scenes have been introduced into courtrooms throughout the world (Saferstein, 2000). It was not until the mid-1970s that methods to detect individual genetic variation at the DNA level were introduced, rapidly changing medical research, diagnostics, and forensics.

Since 1975, rapid technological changes have allowed highly discriminating DNA profiling to be accomplished using trace samples found at crime scenes. These laboratory methods include techniques for DNA amplification, fragment separation and direct sequencing. In addition, computerized storage and searching of DNA profiles from known individuals and from crime scene samples has permitted investigation of crimes across jurisdictional boundaries.

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First publicly recognized use of DNA profiling in forensics

The first major publicly recognized forensic use of DNA-based genetic profiling involved study of DNA polymorphisms (i.e., variations) in crime scene evidence in England in the mid-1980s. Alec Jeffries, a professor at the University of Leicester, utilized multilocus DNA probes to study DNA extracted from crime-scene evidence samples (obtained at autopsy from two teenage rape/homicide victims) and compared the patterns produced to those from DNA obtained under court order from a confessor to one of these two crimes. Jeffries' laboratory findings appeared to exclude the (false) confessor as a source of the DNA in both of the evidence samples, and, at the same time, documented the apparent genetic similarity of the profiles from the two crime scenes, indicating a single source of both of the evidentiary seminal stains (i.e., a serial killer). The search for the perpetrator of these two sexual homicides involved a voluntary blood donation (or "blooding") of adult males within the region in which the murders occurred (Wambaugh, 1989). This process eventually identified the perpetrator of the murders.

This dramatic use of modern DNA-based methods for forensic testing led to replacement of the older serological blood typing methods in virtually all laboratories in developed countries by the late 1990s. It also drew attention to the possibility of typing large numbers of individuals for elimination as suspects, and raised the idea of computerized storage of the DNA profiles of large numbers of individuals for use in investigations of unsolved crimes. In the United States, the first apparent use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) -based forensic DNA typing was to confirm that two autopsy samples were derived from the same person (Pennsylvania v. Pestinikis).

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Admissibility of and Challenges to Forensic DNA Evidence in the Courts

While DNA-based laboratory methods have gained widespread acceptance in most areas of biological and medical research and in medical diagnostics, vigorous (and often successful) challenges to DNA-based identity testing results have been made in courtrooms across the United States and elsewhere (Coleman and Swenson, 1994; Billings, 1992). These challenges have been based on issues surrounding the collection, transport, and preservation of evidentiary samples, chain-of-custody documentation, and matters pertaining to State and Federal rules of evidence (Billings, 1992; Wooley and Harmon, 1992; Aldhous, 1993; Thompson, 1993; Scheck, 1994; Miles et al., 1995). For a bibliography of law review articles addressing issues of DNA admissibility in the courts, see ASLME Reports: Forensic Use Of DNA: Bibliography of Law Reviews and Legal Journals.

In spite of the so-called "DNA wars" fought in the courtrooms, it is important to underscore the role of DNA-based genetic identity testing as an exculpatory tool in addition to its potential exclusionary value. DNA-based forensic testing frequently excludes suspects, defendants, and even persons already convicted and incarcerated as sources of important evidentiary blood, body fluid, or tissue samples. Already, over 100 [in May, 2002 at 108] post-conviction exonerations have now occurred in the United States using DNA typing that was performed months or years after convictions had occurred. Several of these post-conviction exonerations have involved death-row inmates (see National Institute of Justice, 1996).

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Compiling DNA Databases: More Than Just Forensics

In a practical sense, banking of DNA samples and DNA profiles existed before the interest in forensic DNA registries. These repositories of human tissue or DNA include the heel-stick blood spot cards obtained in the first days of life from all live-born infants in the United States. These blood spot cards are collected for genetic disease screening by state Departments of Health, to allow prompt identification and timely treatment of severe but treatable inherited metabolic and genetic disease. Furthermore, hospital pathology departments around the world routinely archive paraffin-embedded tissues from surgical biopsies and from autopsy studies conducted for diagnostic and prognostic testing. These tissue blocks are often retrieved from storage for retrospective DNA-based analysis after the DNA has been extracted from the deparaffinized tissue. Several states have offered parents the chance to prepare and keep blood spot cards on their children and other family members, storing a blood spot on filter paper, a lock of hair, etc. in a way allowing future DNA testing should the child become lost, run away, or be otherwise missing. It is the practice of the entire United States military to obtain and store fingerstick blood samples on special paper for later use as military "dog tags".

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Forensic DNA Databases

All 50 U.S. states have statutory legislation providing for obligatory DNA banking of blood or saliva samples from those convicted of certain felonies. Federal legislation now covers U.S. Federal territories, buildings, the U.S. military and the District of Columbia. Other countries, including Canada and Great Britain, have regional or national DNA databases containing the profiles of offenders or of crime scene evidence.

Under the provisions of the enacted legislation, blood or other tissue samples are obtained for DNA extraction, and multiple genetic loci are typed (the number of loci typed in such cases varies among countries - in the United States, 13 short tandem repeat (STR) loci are typed). These STR loci are 4 base pair repeats that show considerable variation in the human population and do not encode functional genes. The profiles derived from this analysis do not represent genetic disease diagnosis or allow prediction of diseases or behavioral disorders. Typing results (multi-locus DNA profiles) are stored in a computerized database for future comparison to DNA profiles from evidentiary samples from unsolved crimes (crime scene index samples). Similarly, profiles from unsolved crimes can be compared to those in the database of known offenders (offender index). In the United States, individual states search their data against those in a central national index at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In the United States, this whole system - known as CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) - is designed to link offenders or unsolved cases to one another and thus can identify possible suspects in neighboring or distant jurisdictions (U.S. Department of Justice, 1996).

Since the inception of CODIS and the various state-operated DNA databases, hundreds of case-to-case or case-to-suspect "hits" (i.e., DNA matches) have been reported, with one state (Florida) now reporting several new "hits" each week. Given the well-known high degree of criminal recidivism, particularly in sexual-assault cases, DNA databases hold promise for identification of more perpetrators than would be possible without such coordinated efforts (McEwen and Reilly, 1994; Scheck, 1994; McEwen, 1995).

In consideration of the effectiveness of DNA database searching in the criminal justice system, it is important to consider that costs be measured not simply by the number of so-called matches or "hits," but also in the many benefits from exonerations or DNA exclusions. Indeed, the elimination of someone as a suspect based on DNA profiling results can save hundreds if not thousands of hours of wasted investigative time and removes uninvolved parties from unnecessary intrusion by law enforcement personnel.

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DNA ELSI GRANT HOME

Project Description

Workshop #1, May 14-15, 2004

Workshop #2, September 17-18, 2004

Workshop #3, May 13-14, 2005

Workshop #4, September 16-17, 2005

Special Report

ASLME Reports

Summaries of Current News