Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Getting Smart About Dna

Dna's A Great Tool, But We Could Do A Lot More With It. Here's How.

By Barry Scheck NEWSWEEK

Thomas Jefferson Dr. Sam Sheppard

This potential is clear to me because I now wear two unusual, seemingly contradictory DNA hats. I'm codirector of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, which uses DNA testing to exonerate inmates wrongfully convicted of crimes (35 since 1992, six off death row). And I'm also a commissioner on New York's Forensic Science Review Board, an agency charged with creating the state's DNA databank. Though one seems ""pro-defendant'' and the other ""pro-prosecution,'' these are actually synergistic roles. Consider this: in 11 of the cases where DNA testing has exonerated a wrongly convicted person, DNA has also led to finding the real perpetrator.

Given those results, it's clear that doing DNA testing--at more crime scenes, right after the crimes are committed--will help immeasurably. Most important, it would link apparently unrelated crimes to the same perpetrator and generate leads at the beginning of an investigation rather than merely include or exclude suspects at the end.

The problem is DNA laboratories in the United States are so woefully underfunded they can't type enough cases. The British have made this investment. U.K. labs do DNA typing on crime-scene samples from not only new, unsolved rapes and homicides, but also burglaries and other crimes. As a result, they are now getting between 300 and 500 ""hits'' per week from their databanks--either a crime-scene-to-crime-scene hit, or a convicted-offender-to-crime-scene match. Few U.S. labs can type all the rapes and homicides in their jurisdiction (they test only after police have found a suspect), and no U.S. lab routinely types new, unsolved burglaries or other crimes.

Indeed, in many states DNA labs are so backlogged that it often takes 10 months to get results in cases where a suspect has already been apprehended and awaits trial. This creates unnecessary expense for the judicial system (defendants are likely to plead guilty quickly after getting bad DNA results) and unnecessary injustices (indigent defendants, unable to make bail, spend time in jail for crimes they did not commit).

Using DNA databanks effectively does not require taking samples from all citizens, as some rightly fear, or even expanding the databank beyond felony offenders. We don't need to test more people; we need more labs testing more crime scenes. This will not be cheap, but it is surely cost-effective compared with the hundreds of millions needed to enforce a death penalty that doesn't deter, draconian mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and the latest big-ticket proposal in Congress, building prisons to house juveniles as adults. For too long, criminal-justice priorities have been driven by punitive ""get tough'' rhetoric that wins elections but does little to help the cop on the street make cases. It's time to get tough by getting smart.

SCHECK is a professor at Cardozo law school in New York City.

No comments: