Bringing science to law schools


DNA: The use of genetics in criminal court debuted more than a decade ago, but it remains a small part of law school curriculums.

March 12, 2001|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - The slide resembled a child's drawing: the geography of a human cell rendered in bold colors. A green-walled nucleus containing black chromosomes. The red mitochondria floating within the cell wall. And purple spermatozoa poised at the edge of the cell wall.

The science imparted in this classroom should make the students better lawyers. They are learning basic genetics applied to forensic evidence, a primer on a tool that can discern guilt or innocence. It's a window on the wrongs of the criminal justice system.

"We call this `DNA for Dummies,'" lawyer Peter Neufeld says of the lecture he gives with Benjamin Cardozo Law School colleague Barry Scheck.

Neufeld and Scheck are the New York attorneys who pioneered the use of DNA testing to prove claims of innocence by convicted felons, including death row inmates in Oklahoma, Illinois, Virginia and Maryland.

DNA is the molecular building block of life, a genetic bar code unique to each individual. The ability to detect it in evidence such as blood, semen and even a hair root has changed the prosecution and defense of criminal cases and uncovered miscarriages of justice.

A DNA profile is as unique as a fingerprint. The odds that two unrelated people would share a DNA profile exceeds the world's population. A DNA test on semen from a rape case can identify the genetic profile of the rapist. If the accused has a different genetic profile, then he could not be the rapist.

Armed with DNA evidence, Scheck and Neufeld have proved eyewitnesses to be mistaken in their testimony, police work to be sloppy and lawyers to be incompetent - factors that produce wrongful convictions.

"The most important contribution [of DNA testing] is what it teaches us about the rest of the system," Scheck tells his law school students. The lessons learned are that honestly given testimony can be wrong.

The DNA lecture is part of a course Neufeld and Scheck are teaching with a colleague from Northwestern University on the causes and remedies of wrongful convictions.

The weekly lecture, based at New York's Cardozo law school, is beamed live to Northwestern's Chicago campus and to law students at Duke, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Santa Clara University and Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich. The lectures explore false confessions, eyewitness testimony, junk science and post-conviction remedies.

But today the subject is DNA: its biological components, the forensic test, its use in sexual assault cases and other crimes, DNA databanks and related policy issues.

DNA-typing debuted in a criminal court more than a decade ago but remains a small part of law school curriculums. It usually surfaces in courses on evidence, criminal procedure and health or family law where paternity issues arise.

"Law school tends to be rather doctrinal," says Keith Findley, a professor at Wisconsin's law school and a co-director of its Innocence Project. "They teach legal doctrine and tend to ignore other disciplines. They often do not do an adequate job of teaching how the law is applied in the real world. DNA is part of how the law is applied in the real world."

Students enrolled in Findley's Innocence project and others like it across the country are exposed to the fundamentals of DNA. His students investigate claims of wrongful conviction, and DNA testing can prove invaluable in the small percentage of cases in which biological evidence is present.

The University of Maryland Law School conducted a seminar on DNA and wrongful convictions last fall and is considering offering a course on scientific evidence. Students now learn about DNA testing, fingerprinting, radar detection, laser analysis and other science-related matters in evidence classes.

"As these things are applicable to legal doctrine, we incorporate them," says UM law professor Alan Hornstein, who teaches a class on evidence.

James Starrs, a professor at George Washington University, is one of the few law school professors teaching a course on forensic science.

"We don't want to make lawyers scientists," says Starrs. "We want to make them sufficiently prepared to handle some of these issues."

Scheck and Neufeld want more.

"What DNA has done is, it has really exposed that there is a lot of unfairness and there is a lot of inaccuracy in the system," says Scheck. "And if we can improve these parts of the system, not only are we going to minimize the number of wrongful convictions, we are going to find the person who really committed the crime."

In the Cardozo classroom, Scheck and Neufeld begin with the warning that DNA is not a panacea. Most cases do not have biological evidence that can be tested for DNA, they explain. But in cases where biological evidence is available, DNA technology has altered the course of justice.

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