DNA delivers

Our view : The growing value of this forensic tool should be cheered

July 11, 2008

The idea that something as complicated as violent crime can be simply solved by forensic science has had major appeal since Sherlock Holmes. But real life is usually more messy than an episode of CSI. Still, it is gratifying when science delivers the goods, as DNA analysis has recently in Maryland and across the nation.

This week, the Maryland State Police reported that they recently matched evidence from a slaying more than 15 years ago with a DNA sample from a fast-growing database gathered from convicted felons. It was the 1,000th hit since the database was established in 1994. State scientists say the number of forensic DNA hits could double over the next year, thanks to the processing last year of a backlog of 24,000 samples. More matches are hoped for when DNA samples are collected from suspects charged with violent crimes or burglaries under a new state law that takes effect in January. About 75 percent of the matches have helped investigators close cases, the state police say.

The extraordinary benefits of DNA evidence have become apparent in recent years as it has helped free inmates from death rows across the nation and led to broader questions about the quality of evidence in capital murder trials. Its forensic power was highlighted this week with the Boulder County, Colo., prosecutor's public apology to the family of JonBenet Ramsey, the child beauty queen found strangled in her home more than 11 years ago. Boulder investigators had focused on John Ramsey and his wife, Patsy, as possible suspects in the case, but evidence analyzed using an innovative new technique called DNA "touch evidence" cleared the family and suggested an as-yet-unidentified killer.

Some scientists and civil libertarians caution that DNA evidence is only as good as the lab work that analyzes it. But with DNA scientific tools continuing to improve and the collection of samples increasing, the effective use of this powerful investigative tool should be encouraged.

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