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DNA which is known as Deoxyribonucleic Acid was first discovered in 1953, by two scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick. DNA is the genetic material of all cellular organisms. All living organisms and most viruses contain DNA. Cells contain the proteins needed to replicate. DNA copies itself, passing on the information needed for protein synthesis. Replication is the process by which DNA passes on the information for each descendent cell or virus. DNA is organized on chromosomes located in the nucleus of all cells (Encarta Encyclopedia, 2006).
Today DNA is used as a tool in the process of solving crimes, and its roots come from England. In the early 1980's in the English countryside the police were trying there hardest to find the man who was raping and murdering young teenage girls. The police had used all their resources and the investigation had reached a devastating end. What would follow would dramatically change the course of history for police investigations and crime solving around the world.
In the human body every cell is descended from the single cell, the fertilized egg. These tiny cells are what make up the entire anatomy of the human body. The nformation contained in the DNA molecules is responsible for the differences in each human being. The fact that each person has differences in their looks, for example blue or brown eyes, brunette, blonde, or red head, dimples or no dimples, and short or tall, comes from the information in their DNA. DNA is made up of billions of molecules called bases. Every person, other than identical twins, is made up ofa different combination of the four bases, nicknamed A, T, G, and C (Alan Marzilli, 2005). The chromosomes in cells made up of DNA, make everyone share certain characteristics but also give each person their own unique features.
Around the time of the horrific murders in England, a scientist, named Alec Jeffrey's, was working on developing a technique that would allow the analysis of the human DNA. Since DNA, differs from individual to individual, this technique would allow for the testing of evidence from a crime scene to the evidence collected from potential suspects. The police gathered the evidence from each crime, including blood and semen, and compared it to their suspect. The findings from the analysis were that the same semen that came from the victims was from the same man, but not from any of the police suspects.
Now that this new technique came into the light, the police were ready to take their investigation to a new level. "The next step was a bold move that has been hailed as a blessing for law enforcement and a curse for civil liberties" (Alan Marzilli, 2005). Since most of the victims were from neighboring villages, the police decided to call upon the citizens for help. They made a request for all the men, in a certain age bracket and from the three surrounding villages to willingly provide them with a blood sample. This DNA sample would be used to compare to the DNA sample of the killer. The police tested more than four thousand samples and received no matches. Then someone came forward with information that gave the police the break they needed. This individual overheard a conversation where a baker named Ian Kelly stated he had taken the blood test for one of his coworkers, Colin Pitchfork. The police went to Pitchfork's house to obtain the real blood sample and in doing so Pitchfork made a complete confession. The results from the DNA testing confirmed that Colin Pitchfork was the killer.
As remarkable as this landmark case was, it was not without controversy. The case set a precedent for crime scene investigation, and the technique of DNA analysis became the most powerful tool available to law enforcement. However, the case also brought to light the question of the violation of individual civil liberties. Some people thought that obtaining peoples DNA was a treat to their privacy. The police asked the men in the villages to volunteer their DNA, and most did so willingly, but some asked the question, "Why should I?" I am innocent. To some people this was thought to be too much information to be giving to law enforcement. They felt violated. People did not want the government to be able to look at their genetic makeup anymore than they wanted them to be able to knock on their door and search their homes without probable cause.
The police over the years have collected hundreds of thousands of samples of blood and saliva samples. The main purpose for the collection is to maintain a database of information for identification purposes only. Forensic scientists use the collection of skin, semen, or blood taken from a crime scene to compare with the DNA database and potential suspects. The results are often used in court rulings as evidence. The database gives the police a significant resource when looking for potential suspects. In most states when offenders enter the criminal justice system they are now required to provide a DNA sample. The state of Virginia, in 2003, began to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested for a felony. In some cases, the offender may decline to do so, in which case the law enforcement officials will submit a request to the judge and get a court order to use whatever means necessary to retrieve the sample. Perhaps, the most commonly referred to database is the national FBI database established in 1994, called Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) which links each states database. Each state operates their own database, using the profiles of convicted felons (Lauri R. Harding, 2007).
Much of our DNA is actually similar in nature, when examining DNA they must isolate small portions of the molecule and count how many copies of that segment that there are. One person might have 120 copies of one segment, and another person may have 125 repeats of that segment. By examining these segments scientists can make a comparison of DNA from two sources. An example would be taking blood samples from one crime scene and comparing it to another similar crime scene. If the two samples contain different numbers of copies of the segment, it can be determined that the DNA sample came from a different source.
DNA can contain lots of information about a person such as if a person is at risk for breast cancer, HIV, or Type 1 diabetes. DNA testing can help determine if a woman carries the mutant gene, BRCA1, BRCA2, or BRAC3, these genes increase a woman's risk by sixteen times. There was a case where a woman wanted to know if she was at risk for developing breast cancer, because she had a family history of the disease. The company hired to perform the test assured her that the sample would remain anonymous and the results would only be known to her. Four years later the company that performed the DNA test sold their database to an insurance company, claiming it was for research purposes only. The insurance company used the database to cross reference with their own database. They red-flagged the names of the volunteers who were tested for breast cancer. The patients were then denied insurance (Christine Rosen, 2003).
The breakthrough of DNA has helped the innocent people who have been wrongfully accused be set free, it has helped track down people who are infected with a sexual disease, and even break cold crime cases. There are some cases where someone volunteers to give their DNA, and later have it used to prosecute them. When people volunteer to give their genetic sample anonymously, and their privacy is protected, the DNA databases help fight crimes and improve the medical community it seems that the benefits of DNA databases outweigh the risks. The question is how much regulation and oversight of these private companies is necessary to protect private citizens. When these databases are stored on the internet they are suspect to Internet hackers and computer criminals. Some companies create their consent forms with misleading statements and are insufficient when explaining their privacy policies.
Some companies are doing new researches looking into the military's DNA and CODIS, as a possible resource for locating genetic markers for criminal behavior, and aggression. It is possible that this information could be used in the sentencing process as a mitigating factor. The use of DNA can help possibly show that an individual has a potential to be violent, aggressive or have a history of a genetic defect. In some cases the prosecutor can use the information to help persuade the judge in his sentencing of a defendant. There are a significant number of studies that show heredity and genetics clearly contribute to the development of antisocial and criminal behavior. There is no one gene that a person carries to make a person a criminal. However, there are a number of behaviors that put a person at risk for developing a criminal lifestyle.
DNA databases has helped law enforcement officials develop a list of suspects, when they otherwise have none. The police can go to the DNA database and profile certain individuals. They can also use a sweep of a certain area close to a crime scene and request the citizen's to voluntarily give their DNA. They then use the collection samples to compare to the existing DNA database. The police use a general description of the suspect and ask anyone who fits the description to come forward and give a sample. The use of the police sweeps for DNA collection is not as effective as the police would like. There are very few cases where the collection resulted in a suspect being apprehended. As helpful as the DNA databases is, they have the potential to be abused.
In some cases there is a possibility that a sample can be contaminated. In the OJ. Simpson murder trial the defense claimed that the DNA samples were contaminated with Mr. Simpson's blood during testing. During the testing of the blood sample taken from Mr. Simpson, the lab technician at the Los Angeles Police Department spilled some of the blood, on his latex gloves. He discarded the gloves, and continued the test. While at trial the defense claimed the blood evidence found at the crime scene and from inside the vehicle of Mr. Simpson could have been contaminated with Mr. Simpson's blood by the lab tech, therefore the results of the DNA testing could not be ruled as conclusive.
There is some bit of a concern when it comes to trusting law enforcement official's handling DNA samples. When police have to collect blood and other things from crime scenes hundreds and even thousands of people are being put at risk for potential abuse. The use of DNA is used as a tool for crime scene investigations, may even be the most important tool. It is important for police to handle everything professionally and accurately.
The Bill of Rights protects citizens from police harassment. The Fourth Amendment, in particular, states: The right of the people to be secure in their person, houses, papers and effects, searches, and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized. Traditionally, a person cannot be arrested, and his or her home cannot be searched, unless the police have "probable cause" to suspect that a person has committed a crime. The requirement of probable cause extends to requiring someone to provide a DNA sample, which is of a most personal nature. (Alan Marseille, 2005).
Since DNA contains such private information many people feel that it is an invasion of their privacy. The police in some states are now requiring offenders to give up DNA samples when they are arrested. This raises the question of is a person really innocent until proven guilty. Taking a fingerprint sample and a mug shot of the suspect should be enough. Now when it comes to taking DNA samples that is an actual living cell that belongs to an individual, seeming to be a bit much.
It is common to hear about all the police departments around the world that are filled with cold cases that were never solved. The DNA evidence of unsolved crimes can now be tested against the DNA databases. There have been many cold cases solved by opening these up and using DNA testing. The DNA labs have a long back log of cases that offenders have petitioned the courts to examine claiming they are innocent. So many it is hard to keep track of them all.
The Innocence Project of New York, help prisoners to challenge their convictions, by requesting the use of the DNA testing. The project was established by attorneys Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck. The project helps people in prison and on death row, after they have been wrongly convicted. Attorneys and law students volunteer their time to get convictions overturned by using DNA evidence. However there are so many cases that they cannot possibly help everyone. The appeals process takes many hours of legal and scientific research, and in many cases the process to get through the courts can take years. In many cases when the case is revisited the real perpetrator has been caught.
In 2000, Congress enacted the DNA Backlog Elimination Act of 2000. The following are some of the findings:
â€¢ DNA testing was not widely available in cases tried before 1994
â€¢ Much smaller samples are needed than when the DNA testing was first used
â€¢ DNA testing has exonerated more than 75 people, some who were sentenced to death
â€¢ In more than a dozen cases the real perpetrator was apprehended
â€¢ Only a few states have adopted post-conviction DNA testing
â€¢ Congress should condition forensic science-related grants to a State or State forensic facility on the State's agreement to ensure post-conviction DNA testing in appropriate cases .... ("," Pub. L. No. 106-561/2000).
In many cases the examination of post-conviction testing can help prosecutors to revisit old cases where there were unanswered questions. For example, if someone confesses to a crime they didn't really commit, for whatever reason, DNA testing can help to eliminate them as the perpetrator. In some cases a defendant may be pressured by the police or investigator to sign a confession. The police have even used unnecessary force, such as threatening bodily harm or even threatening the defendant's family in order to obtain a confession. They may sit many years in jail before they are willing to come forward and tell their story.
The Innocence Project has produced a list of provisions for person's seeking postconviction relief. First, the provision allows for people convicted of criminal offenses to have the right to petition the courts for retesting evidence, this includes people who have completed their sentence, those still serving time and those who plead guilty. When DNA evidence is part of the appeal the defendant has the right to counsel. Secondly, the investigators must retain all the biological evidence, for the entire time the defendant is serving their sentence, even convicted sex offenders. And lastly, the state must pay for postconviction DNA testing (Danielle S. Sapse, 2007).
The use of DNA today is astonishing. The future of DNA is unknown, but there is no doubt that its use will continue to amaze us all. The use of DNA testing can help in the justice system, not only for the conviction process but also those circumstances such as paternity case, hereditary tendencies and the propensity for a certain behavior. Last but not least, I hope the future of DNA will continue to help our Criminal Justice System.