Saturday, April 19, 2008

Proving innocence, solving cold cases, frequently depend on DNA collection and preservation

Much of the focus at the 3rd annual "Actual Innocence" conference I attended last week centered on DNA testing which has led to more than 200 recent exonerations nationwide, so I thought I'd share with readers a few items of interest from my notes on the topic.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jim McLaughlin of the Texas Police Chiefs Association told the crowd that in an ideal world, he'd like to see every infant DNA swabbed at birth. (Why not just tag our ears like cattle, Jim, or inject a RFID chip under our skin and be done with it?)

Other speakers described pressures by law enforcement to expand the national DNA database by various means, and a handout in the backup material from USDOJ encouraged expanded use of DNA in property crimes. From a "CSI Effect" perspective that may sound like a good idea, but I don't see how it's pragmatically possible; the labs are overwhelmed trying to fulfill their functions now.

CODIS is the name of the software housing the national DNA database, to which 44 states contribute specimens from all certain convicted felons (see Texas' statute). Different states have different practices, but in Texas (and 10 other states) DNA swabs are taken upon arrest and entered into the system. Same for federal arrestees. Since its implementation, CODIS identified a possible match (not necessarily a defendant) in 2,238 total investigations as of March 2008, and in 50,000 investigations nationwide.

Three states allow the defense bar access to CODIS, which would certainly make it easier to check innocence claims or pursue independent investigatory paths from police.

A couple of speakers emphasized that scientists don't actually "match" DNA, but estimate a statistical probability they're the same, which is a slightly different beast. Fingerprints, it was pointed out, previously were considered "gold standard" evidence but their infallibility has increasingly come under fire. In addition, HPD crime lab director Irma Rios emphasized how frequently DNA evidence is contaminated or mixed with other DNA at crime scenes in ways that damage the evidence or make it unusable.

Some attention was paid to the issue of swabbing family members when DNA appears to be "close" to a suspect but doesn't exactly fit. Forensic specialists identified several best practices they said "should" be followed in such instances, but gave no information as to whether these are the practices in Texas' DNA sampling program. E.g., departments by policy should destroy DNA swabs from innocent family member or other suspects, and familial swabs should not be uploaded into local DNA databases at all. Some agencies require informed consent to get DNA, but it's legal to lie to get DNA samples, DNA in someone's trashcan is fair game, and you don't need probable cause to take a DNA sample under current law, the gathering was told in a seminar titled DNA 101.

The legal eagles among you may be interested that the Supreme Court recently granted cert (meaning they agreed to hear the case) in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachussetts (07-591), which will decide whether a forensic lab report is "testimonial" evidence subject to the "Confrontation Clause" in the US Constitution, as set forth in the Crawford decision. (For reasons that will become clear when I discuss Dr. Bill Tillstone's talk, I think a lab report decidedly IS testimonial evidence, but readers will be shocked to learn that SCOTUS and I do not always agree.)

It was also suggested there could be Brady issues (meaning it could violate a prosecutor's duty to disclose exculpatory evidence) if defense counsel isn't allowed access to CODIS, though the question lacks the immediacy of the pending SCOTUS confrontation decision.

Evidence gathering and preservation is particularly important in DNA cases. (Pictured at left is the New Orleans evidence room, via the Denver Post.) The only reason so many exonerees have surfaced in Dallas is that the county kept old DNA samples. Elsewhere they've been destroyed, though few people believe the same problems that cause wrongful convictions in Big D don't occur elsewhere. In San Diego, according to one speaker, DNA evidence was destroyed in 3/4 of old cases. (In Houston, regular readers will recall, the DA's office to this day frequently requires destruction of DNA evidence as part of a plea bargain, which avoids anyone going back to check old cases.)

Susan Green, a reporter with the Denver Post, spent a year investigating evidence destruction for a major newspaper series on the topic. (See the complete series.) The issue comes up in two ways, she said: Proving innocence and solving cold cases. She called the system under-regulated, and said local authorities routinely destroy evidence in old cases, including thousands of rape kits.

Legislation currently moving in the Colorado state legislature "would grant new trials to criminal defendants in cases where DNA evidence was thrown out despite a court order requiring it be saved for testing." That would be a strong deterrent to negligence in evidence preservation, don't you think?


Ron in Houston said...

RFID chips?

Come on Grits - everyone knows that tattooing a bar code on our foreheads is the cheapest alternative.

Don said...

Good Grief! Grits, you never seize to amaze me with your cutting edge reporting. This is great stuff, and I just wanted to thank you once again for being the best blog on CJ and enforcement in the whole blogosphere.

To Ron in Houston: yeah, but I probably hope some people don't read that. It may not be as far-fetched as we think.

Anonymous said...

I think the idea of allowing defense lawyers access to CODIS is a great idea. What reason could there be for prosecuting attorneys to NOT allow this to be done?

Anonymous said...

Not all people arrested have to give there DNA.

Murray Newman said...

Out of curiosity, do you know whether or not an attempt has been made by any members of the Defense Bar to have access to CODIS? If so, and it was rebuffed, what were the stated reasons?
The only one that I can really think of would possibly be the cost of creating a format that would be easily accessible for viewing to members of the Defense Bar.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

First, thanks Don, I really appreciate it.

RE: DNA and arrests, as I understand it, DNA swabs are only for felony arrests. Sorry if I wasn't clear.

And AHCL, I don't know who has asked or what was the outcome. This conference (w/ a lot of ADAs there, actually, for CLE credit) was the first I've heard of the defense bar getting access to CODIS in other states. Thanks folks.

W W Woodward said...

"RE: DNA and arrests, as I understand it, DNA swabs are only for felony arrests. Sorry if I wasn't clear."


I'm afraid I already know the answer to this one, but I have to ask.

If the arrested person isn't indicted or is found not guilty does the DNA sample remain in the system?

Don said...

I probably should just let this go, but alas, I can't. My first post said Grits never "seized" to amaze me with his cutting edge reporting. Lest some English major jump on this, when I re-read it I knew it should have been "cease". So If you read that, I want to tell you that I am actually semiliterate and just had a senior moment. But I bet they don't purge the samples they take on the wrongly arrested. And some would argue that this is a good thing, because it might be needed at a later date for something unrelated. Of course, that logic gets us back to the original problem of the RFID chips and/or the tattooed foreheads.

Anonymous said...

There is only four felony's that have to give there DNA and that is sexual assault,hom. arson, auto theft in Harris Co.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The statement that DNA went into CODIS for "felonies" was from my notes, but here's the actual statute, which is only for a subset of offenses, not all felonies.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks for the correction. I got up this morning and corrected the text on DNA swabs for felonies to reflect this discussion (with a strikethrough in the error), just fyi.

Chris Halkides said...


Unfortunately, when DNA is used to solve a cold case, the DNA profile may be from a contamination event. This appears to be what happened in the Jane Mixer case. She was a graduate student at the University of Michigan and DNA from two individuals was found on items related to the case. One of them was four years old at the time of the murder and lived in a different city.