DNA use hits snags Logistical, ethical issues affect role as tool to fight crime

'You have to be sensitive'

Panel studying ways to speed up creation of national database

June 08, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Some day, the greatest crime fighter could be the scientist in the lab coat, not the detective with a badge.

DNA evidence -- blood, saliva or semen at a crime scene -- is becoming the cornerstone of more and more cases, and recent technological advances are allowing states to share genetic profiles online.

But the growing popularity of DNA as a crime-solving tool has created its own problems, logistical and ethical.

Almost every state has a law that allows taking samples from inmates for the purpose of creating a database to enable computers to make matches, or "cold hits."

That has generated a potential backlog of 1 million DNA samples because police departments can't collect and process them fast enough.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has established a commission, which includes Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, to study how to improve the use of DNA evidence. It is set to meet for the second time today in Chicago. The mayor said he hopes to pass along to his Police Department "the very latest information and technology from around the country."

Schmoke brings to the group experience as a former state's attorney and a municipal budget and policy planner that will help solve the DNA backlog, said Christopher Asplen, commission executive director.

"There are people walking around that we absolutely could keep from being raped or murdered but can't because we haven't spent the money," said Asplen. "Those [stockpiled] samples are of no use to us if they are in storage because of backlog."

Prince George's County Police Chief John Farrell, a pioneer in DNA use, says advances are "changing how we do investigations."

"The managing of crime scenes will become ever more important to the point where in my budget I may ask for more technicians and crime scene processors than new detectives," Farrell said.

Virginia's program

Virginia recently established a $10 million program that has turned to a private laboratory to process more than 160,000 backlogged DNA samples, creating the world's second-largest DNA database behind England.

Virginia's program and its DNA laws, which require taking samples from all felons and juvenile offenders older than age 14, are considered a national model for developing databases. By contrast, Maryland takes samples from adults convicted of rape, sexual assault and child sexual abuse.

"One can throw money at this and see success," said Dr. Paul Ferrara, director of Virginia's Division of Forensic Sciences and a member of Reno's commission. "Once we have a databank of 1 million samples, we will be making literally hundreds of cold hits from samples being taken from crime scenes in the absence of any other evidence."

Scotland Williams was convicted last month of killing two lawyers in Anne Arundel County, in part because his body betrayed him.

A sample of Williams' DNA, lifted from a drinking glass at the crime scene, helped convince a jury that only he could have shot Jose E. Trias and his wife, Julie N. Gilbert, four years ago as they lay in their bed.

This summer, an Annapolis man will be tried in two rape cases from the early 1990s because a police laboratory made a DNA match.

But breakthroughs in establishing databases are not without legal and ethical questions, especially when police departments collect samples from many people during an investigation.

What should happen to DNA samples from people who are cleared of a crime? How do you assure the public that samples taken by police cannot and will not be used for other purposes, such as finding predisposition to disease?

"You have to be sensitive right away," acknowledged Farrell, who has used mass testing here and in Florida in highly publicized rape and murder cases.

Huge collections

The American Civil Liberties Union complained to Farrell this year when he asked all 400 male employees at Prince George's Hospital Center to provide saliva samples after the rape and slaying of an administrator.

The chief, who promised the ACLU to destroy the samples after the investigation is concluded, believes it is important to establish policies on collection of evidence so the public can feel confident.

Farrell used the same technique several years ago when, as chief of detectives in Dade County, Fla., he ordered a huge collection of saliva samples in an effort to catch the killer of six prostitutes. Officers stopped 2,300 men driving through an area frequented by prostitutes just outside Miami. Those who refused to give a sample were interrogated.

Although the Florida testing did not solve the case, Farrell said it worked in favor of innocent people and allowed police to focus their investigation elsewhere.

"When most people think of DNA, they think of it as a prosecutorial tool," explained Farrell. "But its exculpatory capacity is even more powerful."

New York Supreme Court Judge Gerald Sheindlin, author of the book "Genetic Fingerprinting," agreed.

"I have had twice as many dismissals as convictions with DNA evidence," Sheindlin said in a recent interview.

"Massive testing is offensive on a certain level, but I think it is outweighed by the usefulness," he said.

Lawyer Stephen Friedman doesn't buy that argument. He represented the Washington-area chapter of the ACLU in demanding that Farrell destroy the samples from hospital employees.

"This is a country of laws and one of those laws is you have a right not to incriminate yourself," Friedman said. "These were people who were declared innocent, but were about to become part of the criminal process."

Pub Date: 6/08/98

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