Posts Tagged ‘DNA’

If you’ve ever spent any time around convicts, you’ll learn one thing in a hurry: our prisons are full of “innocent” men. They’re not innocent in the ordinary sense. They actually did commit the robberies, rapes, drug deals, and murders they’re convicted of. But they’re innocent in the sense that they protest their innocence with remarkable sincerity and passion. They will tell you how they were railroaded by mean-spirited prosecutors, flat-footed detectives, and corrupt “snitches.” In other words, they’re living in a manipulative fantasy land with which ordinary people are entirely unfamiliar.

Surely, there are some innocent people in prison. This is inevitable considering how many defendants were convicted before the era of DNA testing, when witness identifications often suffer from confusion, and when circumstantial evidence often provides overwhelming proof that someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This law review article on the subject of DNA testing was unique and apposite. It notes that more than half of the folks that pass the Innocence Project’s initial screening process end up confirming their own guilt with DNA testing. This may seem odd to outside observers. Why would they go through this process. Well, if you’re guilty, and you’re already in prison, why not try? In their minds, perhaps there’s some fluke in the test and it’s worth a shot; they likely also don’t realize how reliable DNA is in confirming guilt.

The authors propose that when DNA testing confirms guilt, the prisoners in question should be punished for wasting everyone’s time with significant additional length added to their prison sentences. This seems perfectly reasonable, as the petitioners alone know when the test is likely to confirm guilt. The Innocence Project and DNA testing are both very worthy endeavors in my mind. Few tragedies inspire as much horror as a lengthy incarceration of an innocent man. One of the great advancements of forensic science in the last few decades is the incredibe precision offered by a DNA test. But we should not assume that the prisons are filled with innocent people; even in the past, juries and witnesses wanted the same things we want today: for the innocent to walk free and for the guilty to go to jail. And, like today, they mostly got it right.

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This is an amazing story about how the FBI and other law enforcement agencies spent months looking for a white rape-murder suspect in Baton Rouge, Louisiana until DNA evidence conclusively established that the killer had black ancestry. The real killer was found months later. Five women were raped and killed during the wild goose chase for the imaginary white suspect. Discredited folk wisdom that inter-racial rape is rare and that most serial killers are white undoubtedly contributed to this fiasco.

One disturbing example of willful blindness emerged in the article. The original nationwide DNA testing and database system used by law enforcement deliberately did not track ethnic information, even though such information is obviously very useful for law enforcement to clear suspects and also to keep their focus on whoever the real offender is. After years of being told that “race is a social construct,” even police and administrators forgot something most people learn in ninth grade biology:  that our skin color, appearance, and ancestry all correlates strongly with identifiable genetic markers. The article reports:

Tony Frudakis first heard about the Baton Rouge serial killer just like everyone else outside of Louisiana — on cable news. As months went by, the body count climbed, Frudakis followed the case, thinking “why on earth can’t they catch this guy?”

Several years earlier, Frudakis’ father was shot when he confronted a would-be car thief in the driveway of his Long Beach, California, home. The thief escaped but dropped his driver’s license at the scene and was apprehended quickly. The serial killer had also left behind his identification in his DNA but, unlike a driver’s license, his genetic ID revealed nothing about his physical characteristics — or at least it revealed nothing the police could use.

The DNA forensic products available at the time could only be used to match DNA specimens in the CODIS, or Combined DNA Index System, database which contains about 5 million DNA profiles. If investigators have a crime scene sample but no suspect, they run it against those in the database to see if it matches a sample already on file.

But while CODIS is good at linking the criminals who are already catalogued from other crimes, the system is useless in identifying physical characteristics. It says nothing about race. It has been specifically set up to reveal no racial information whatsoever, in part so that the test would be consistently accurate irrespective of race.

But non-scientific considerations also factored into how the system was established. When the national DNA Advisory Board selected the gene markers, or DNA sequences which have a known location on a chromosome, for CODIS, they deliberately chose not to include markers associated with ancestral geographic origins to avoid any political maelstrom.

We’ve overcompensated, moving from a time when law enforcement often employed crude stereotypes against minorities to one where verifiable negative facts about minorities are ignored and suppressed, even when they will aid in the discovery of active serial killers.  Oh well, as the SDS, Lenin, and the other authors of political correctness said so often:  “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”

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