The Guardian

The Guardian April 19, 2000


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

DNA: two edged sword

The proposal put forward in NSW to introduce compulsory DNA testing of 
all people arrested and all people in prison has aroused fierce public 
debate and some strong opposition. It has been pointed out that DNA 
matching is not as accurate as fingerprinting, with which it is 
often compared.

Much of the opposition is based on the undeniable fact that people simply 
can't trust the police. The reliability of the testing procedure itself has 
also been called into question, given the predilection for using private 
labs to do forensic work these days.

Tendering to secure the contract in the first place, and consequently 
working down to a price rather than up to a standard, private labs are the 
last type of institution that should be involved in studying evidence that 
may send a person to prison.

While the NSW Police Commissioner apparently subscribes to the view that 
DNA testing is a virtually infallible aid to solving crimes and securing 
convictions, in the USA it has been used to expose police frame-ups and 
getting innocent people freed from prison.

The US Supreme Court allowed DNA testing to be used in appeals cases in 
1993. Since then, 64 people have been freed on appeal after DNA evidence 
cleared them. Some of them had spent years in jail.

Herman Atkins was released in February after spending 12 years in prison in 
California for a rape he did not commit. The previous month Clyde Charles 
was released in Louisiana after spending 19 years in jail for what the 
Sydney Morning Herald called "a trumped up rape charge".

In Illinois, DNA testing proved the innocence of 13 prisoners on death row!

This was so embarrassing that Governor George Ryan, a right-wing Republican 
and advocate of the death penalty, had to declare a moratorium on 
executions in January.

The overturning of so many convictions on DNA evidence focussed attention 
on how these people came to be convicted in the first place.

In California, the disparity between the DNA evidence and the police 
evidence brought to light a police racket that involved fabricating 
evidence to inflate conviction statistics.

As a result, 99 prisoners have had to be released. In case any of them want 
to sue for false imprisonment, the State  like most other US States  
has a law that limits the amount of compensation that can be paid.

An innocent person wrongfully incarcerated, subjected to extraordinary 
mental and emotional stress  not to mention physical abuse  their 
family often torn apart, their finances ruined, their job probably lost, 
years sometimes lost out of their lives, can claim no more than US$100 
(that's A$165) for each day they were locked up.

And even that princely sum cuts out at three months: no matter how many 
years you were locked away, you can only claim compensation for 100 days!

It says a lot about the morality of the justice system in the USA, that 
most state authorities are more concerned to limit or evade altogether 
paying compensation for wrongfully imprisoning people, than with seeing 
that innocent people are freed.

Thirty-three US States have statutes of limitation in place that mean that 
unless a convicted person has his or her DNA test done within six months of 
being convicted they cannot have it done at all! Screw justice, we're 
talking convenience and state budgets here.

Others simply refuse to allow prisoners to have DNA testing in case it 
exposes the flaws in a corrupt legal system. As the Herald put it, 
"of the 64 prisoners cleared [on appeal] of crimes through DNA tests, more 
than half had to take their local prosecutors to court to win the right to 
have the testing done".

To get the chance to take the DNA test that freed him after 19 years, Clyde 
Charles had to sign away his right to any compensation before state 
officials would allow him to have the DNA test.

How wretchedly immoral is that? All Charles will now get is a portion of 
his prison "pay" of 22 cents an hour, earned toiling in the cotton fields 
of the Angola State Penitentiary.

So DNA testing definitely has an upside. But it's not a magic crime-solving 
kit: it's a complex procedure that is open to contamination and 
misinterpretation.

Because of the nature and seriousness of its work, a forensic lab should 
never be a privately run for-profit operation.

It should be a publicly run institution of the highest standards, like the 
Commonwealth Serum Laboratory or the CSIRO used to be. Maybe then police-
originated DNA tests would be trusted.

Finally a footnote: British geneticist Alec Jeffries receives a royalty on 
every forensic DNA test performed anywhere in the world.

That's science under capitalism: research is not a quest for knowledge and 
the advancement of the human race, but purely a quest for personal gain.

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