DNA Typing in the Court of Science

April 17, 1992

Genetic typing, the new techniques in genetic science used for "fingerprinting" of criminal suspects, is here to stay. The technology for identifying genetic material as coming from a particular person is too "powerful" to just go away, as a National Academy of Sciences panel acknowledges.

The panel of experts, some of whose members have actually testified in court about forensic DNA results, made some good observations about the state of the art:

* Mistakes can happen in a laboratory, and they do. Thus, DNA fingerprinting labs cannot keep secrets on their methods. Pleas of "trade secrets" cannot provide an acceptable basis for blocking a person who is accused of a crime from challenging the sufficiency of evidence against him. When it could cost him years behind bars or even his life, the laboratory methods must assuredly be open to tests of accuracy.

* Standards must be developed for the DNA sequencing itself, to make it easier to determine the veracity of the work. Where that goes next, to a recommendation that DNA sleuths be tested for proficiency, crosses a delicate point: laboratories have not been required to prove their workers' competence in examining gunshot residues, fingerprints or firearms identification, either. If standards and proficiency tests are good for DNA work, they should be required for the others as well.

* Disinterested scientists must sharpen the standards of forensic DNA typing, not prosecutors whose job it is to win convictions. The science in the labs must be subjected to intensive review and the standards must be developed within the scientific community.

Also, statistical analyses of the probability of another person having the same DNA sequence needs a more reliable footing, which can best be developed by people with no ax to grind and a rigorous tradition of seeking the scientific truth.

Scientists on the academy's panel concluded that the DNA-typing tests as now used are generally reliable. They want to focus on improving the quality of the lab work, not ending DNA-typing's role in the courtroom. It will be up to the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, as the scientists said, to get cracking on the committee's recommendations.

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