Genetic "fingerprinting" is a valid and powerful technology for solving crimes, but the laboratories doing the work need to be closely scrutinized and regulated, according to scientists who studied the issue for the National Research Council.
Dr. Victor A. McKusick, a Johns Hopkins Hospital geneticist who chaired the committee, said yesterday that while standardization and accreditation are needed for the laboratories and personnel doing the analyses, known as DNA profiling, there is no need to halt the use of genetic evidence or to reopen old cases in which it was used to help identify and convict suspects.
"The present methods are good, but there is no reason they can't be better," Dr. McKusick said.
His comments came in the wake of a New York Times story yesterday, also printed in The Evening Sun and The Sun, which reported that the committee had concluded that DNA fingerprinting should not be allowed in criminal courts until labs tighten their standards and the technology has a firmer scientific basis.
He said he was "very upset" by the Times article, which he said "seriously misrepresents our findings."
He said the Times' reporter, Gina Kolata, "was looking for something sensational."
Today, the Times said its account "emphasized a section of the panel's report that legal experts, and two panel members, say is tantamount to calling for DNA evidence not to be used in court until the recommended higher standards are attained."
Nicholas Wade, science editor of the Times, said, "We based our interpretation of the report on the views of legal experts, but erred in our article and headline in saying that the panel called directly for a moratorium on the use of DNA typing."
The committee's report was to have been released today, but the National Academy of Sciences released it early in an effort to "set the record straight," Dr. McKusick said.
In the report, he said, "we confirm the general reliability of using DNA typing in forensic science. When performed properly, the technique is capable of providing strong evidence for solving crimes."
The report does not recommend a moratorium on the use of DNA evidence in court. But until formal laboratory accreditation is in place, Dr. McKusick said, judges should require that laboratories demonstrate that they are meeting "generally accepted standards" in their work.
Those standards were outlined a year ago by the Technical Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods, a group of forensics experts from across the country meeting under the auspices of the FBI, he said.
If the work at a particular lab is sloppy, Dr. McKusick said, it should be challenged in court "just as any other kind of evidence can be challenged in court."
DNA fingerprinting technology was developed in England in 1985. Genetic material extracted from tiny samples of blood, semen or body tissue is chemically processed to reveal a distinctive pattern of lines, like a supermarket bar code, on X-ray film.
These DNA "fingerprints" are highly individual, and the chances of two unrelated people having the same genetic patterns are usually described as 1 in many millions.
By comparing the genetic "profile" extracted from crime scene evidence with that taken from a suspect's blood sample, investigators will either find a match, which adds to other evidence against a suspect, or no match, which may eliminate him or her from further suspicion.
Maryland's courts have admitted DNA evidence since June 1989. Several dozen Maryland suspects have been convicted with DNA evidence since then. Others have been cleared. Until this year, the lab work was all done by commercial labs or the FBI.
Dr. McKusick said yesterday that his committee was set up in 1989 after lawyers and scientists expressed concern that some of the laboratory work being done in forensic DNA profiling was "quite shoddy."
"In the two years the committee has been at work, things have improved greatly," he said, and some problems investigated by the committee, "have been corrected already."
Dr. Louis Portis, chief of the Maryland State Police crime laboratory in Pikesville, said the Technical Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods has met for three years to develop a standard protocol for DNA analysis. Their first guidelines were published last year, and have been adopted by the Maryland State Police Crime Lab and others across the country.
In addition, the American Society of Crime Lab Directors is preparing to add DNA analysis to the laboratory procedures already covered by its accreditation process. The state police lab is accredited by the group, and will seek DNA accreditation when it is available, Dr. Portis said.
The crime lab also participates in regular "proficiency tests" in which known samples are submitted by outside laboratories to see whether the police lab yields the correct result. So far, he said, the state police lab has passed all the tests.
Dr. McKusick called those efforts at quality control "a step in the right direction. . . . The industry has done a very good job of regulating itself, or gotten started on it."
The State Police Crime Lab began DNA profiling in January.