Justice will be served with better DNA system
THE first use of DNA evidence in a criminal case dates back to 1986-87. Significantly, it resulted in clearing a wrongly accused individual as well as convicting the guilty one.
After two rape-murders in rural England, police believed they had identified the perpetrator, a young man who confessed to the crimes.
However, the accused man's father persuaded DNA forensics pioneer Alan Jeffries to lend his expertise to the police, and they agreed to accept his help. Jeffries' tests exonerated the initial suspect and identified the real perpetrator, who was subsequently convicted on the basis of the DNA evidence.
DNA is a powerful tool for law enforcement investigations because each person's DNA is different from every other person's (except for identical twins). By analyzing selected DNA sequences, a forensics laboratory is able to unequivocally identify the perpetrator of a crime and exclude innocent suspects. Since 1987, DNA evidence has become widely recognized as reliable and accurate by both the scientific community and the general public.
DNA testing allows limited law enforcement resources to be directed where they are needed the most. DNA testing also is being used to clear the names of people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes, some of whom have spent years in prison, sometimes on death row.
Moreover, the DNA markers that are used by law enforcement do not reveal birth defects, genetic diseases or other sensitive medical information that can be misused. They are purely for identification purposes only. This preserves an individual's privacy and makes DNA testing no more invasive than taking fingerprints.
On Jan. 5, a federal law was enacted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. Among other provisions, the act allows for the collection of DNA samples from those who are arrested and detained under federal authority. Collected DNA will be included in the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).
This federal initiative is laying the groundwork for states to follow suit and eventually take DNA samples from all arrestees. Last year Hawaii became one of 44 states that require DNA samples to be taken from all adults convicted of felony offenses. This is an important step in improving the national databank and catching a criminal before other crimes are committed.
Now we must take the next step. We need to expand the DNA databank by taking DNA samples from those who are arrested and detained under state authority. This will expedite prosecution of those committing crimes and ensure a prompt release of the innocent.
When suspects are taken into custody, fingerprints are routinely taken as part of the arrest process. These fingerprints are then put into the FBI's automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) which is used for identification purposes. Similarly, DNA could be collected during the arrest process with a simple mouth swab whenever fingerprints are taken. As with AFIS, inclusion in CODIS would also be strictly for identification purposes.
With all new policies, implementation raises issues and concerns that will have to be resolved. In addition, considerable federal, state and local resources will be required to enlarge forensic laboratory capacity. However, this will be an investment in the most powerful investigative tool we have to identify the guilty and protect the innocent. DNA analysis must be utilized to the greatest extent possible to advance these goals in the pursuit of justice and defense of the individual.
U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie represents urban Honolulu in Congress, and Peter Carlisle is prosecuting attorney for Honolulu.