DNA Code


Only a small fraction of our total DNA makes us different from gorillas,
chimpanzees and other primates. An even smaller fraction makes one person
different from the next. It's these differences that forensic DNA experts use to
identify people and determine the source of biological evidence such as blood or
semen found at a crime scene. DNA testing is powerful, sensitive and effective
in pointing to the guilty and absolving the innocent. To date, 67 convicted
felons have been exonerated nationwide based on DNA evidence. The vast majority
of those have been rape cases. But DNA testing as it is now performed raises a
question as to whether the public should fear that an innocent person may be
wrongfully convicted or a legitimate suspect excluded from consideration. Should
we be concerned that the government can order the collection of one's DNA for
purposes of identification, much like a set of fingerprints? DNA contains much
more personal information than a fingerprint. Recognizing the importance of DNA,
our government sponsored the Human Genome Project in 1990 to determine the
sequence of DNA sub-units within each of our 46 chromosomes. The complete
sequence will be deciphered within the next few years. With this information,
there will be dramatic advances in many medically related areas, giving doctors
the ability to predict illness, make better diagnoses and perform gene therapy
to correct sometimes deadly genetic defects. DNA online With the development of
specialized machines, it is now relatively easy to make millions of copies of
any gene and determine its sequence. With the same equipment, we can determine
the genetic composition of anyone who becomes a suspect in a crime. This
information can be incorporated into a local, state or national database for
future use. In 1998, the FBI laboratory brought its National DNA Index System
online. DNA profiles from convicted offenders and crime scene evidence submitted
by forensic labs are combined into a single national database. As a result, DNA
evidence found at a crime scene in New York can be used to identify a suspect in

Virginia if a matching profile is found. New York City Police Commissioner

Howard Safir has proposed that all those convicted of any crime be required to
submit a specimen of their cells for analysis and that their DNA profiles become
part of the state's database. The city's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, has gone even
further and endorsed the idea of collecting DNA samples from everyone at birth.

Both say the benefits associated with increased testing are well worth the cost
to the taxpayer. But do we have anything to fear from universal DNA testing?

Many argue that the innocent certainly have nothing to worry about. The perfect
science? Forensic DNA analysis is held in such high esteem that it has developed
a reputation of infallibility. But is it really the perfect science or can
analysts make mistakes? A mistake could cost a suspect his liberty or even his
life. This almost happened in England, where a DNA test matched an innocent man
to a burglary crime scene. Based on a test using six genes, he was deemed the
likely source of the crime scene evidence. He matched the evidentiary profile
perfectly. But in a more rigorous 10-gene analysis, conducted because he
presented a very strong alibi, he was excluded as a suspect. Britain's DNA
database is the largest in the world, consisting of almost 700,000 profiles.

When it comes to criminal matters, civil liberties in Britain are apparently
less of a concern than they are in the United States. Most English subjects tend
to volunteer specimens when police ask them to do so. As with any medical
procedure, one must weigh the benefits of DNA testing against any potential
downside. There are clearly a number of ethical and legal issues that must be
addressed. How can we be sure that someone won't gain access to your genetic
profile and sell it to a prospective employer or insurance company? It's a
frightening thought, but political candidates may one day find themselves
compelled to provide samples of their DNA. Genetic profiles could then influence
the way people vote. The good, the bad and the ugly Everything we are is in our

DNA -- personality, behavioral traits, intelligence, the likelihood of
developing a disease. In other words, the good, the bad and the ugly. To avoid
the potential for abuse, the government should just retrieve identifying
information from the samples and destroy the rest. I believe that while there
are no easy answers, DNA testing is extremely valuable as a crime-fighting tool
-- as long as safeguards are in place to prevent abuse and ensure that genetic
information doesn't fall into the wrong hands. We all want to see an end to
violent crime, but at what cost? Should we take samples from all those arrested
regardless of how serious the charge? Should we test everyone at birth? Should
we be concerned that governmental police agencies may soon possess our total
genetic blueprint? With the phenomenon of computer hacking that now confronts
us, should we worry about database security? What do you think? Lawrence

Kobilinsky, Ph.D., is a professor of forensic science and associate provost at

John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is an internationally
recognized expert in the areas of serology and DNA analysis and serves as a
consultant to the U.S. State Department. THIS WEEK: Going Mindhunting More About

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KOBILISNKSY EVENTS improve its use as a tool of investigation and adjudication
in criminal cases. The Commission will address issues in five specific areas:
(1) the use of DNA in post-conviction relief cases—view published report, (2)
legal concerns including Daubert challenges and the scope of discovery in DNA
cases, (3) criteria for training and technical assistance for criminal justice
professionals involved in the identification, collection and preservation of DNA
evidence at the crime scene—view published pamphlet, (4) essential laboratory
capabilities in the face of emerging technologies, and (5) the impact of future
technological developments on the use of DNA in the criminal justice system.

Each topic will be the focus of in-depth analysis by separate working groups
comprised of prominent professionals who will report back to the Commission.