Synopses & Reviews
DNA typing -- the analysis of a biological sample for a personand#8217;s genetic signature -and#150; has led to the unprecedented exoneration of hundreds of wrongfully convicted people. And every day we hear stories about how police used DNA to capture a dangerous rapist or killer. Reading these accounts, it is hard not to think of DNA typing as an unmitigated good. Who can argue with a technology that helps catch bad guys and correct law enforcement mistakes?
But there is a darker side to this story -- a version less likely to play out on dramatic television shows. In Inside the Cell, Erin Murphy shows how DNA typing can be subject to misuse, mistake, and error, and lead to a police state run amok. Murphy shows the perils of a society in which and#147;stop-and-friskand#8221; becomes and#147;stop-and-spit,and#8221; or in which police pose undercover to get a DNA sample from your discarded lunch. Already, police can collect DNA when making an arrest, sometimes before charging a person with a crime. The government is building a massive DNA database, stockpiling samples from as much as a third of the male population, and the laws regulating what they can and cannot do with them are weak. Murphy shows how this invites the riskiest kind of genetic surveillance imaginable.
Just because DNA testing is good science does not mean that it is foolproof. Faulty forensic science is the number two factor leading to wrongful conviction, and yet we have done little to improve the use of science in criminal justice. Forensic labs are largely unregulated and lacking in meaningful oversight standards, as evidenced by the involvement of nearly every major forensic lab in a DNA-related scandal. We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to collect DNA samples from convicted offenders. But we have spent far less to hire analysts to wade through huge backlogs, and virtually nothing to ensure that evidence will ever even collected from the crime scene.
We are at a critical moment in time for forensic DNA testing programs. We may continue on the road we are on now, with our blind faith and limitless enthusiasm for handing over our genetic secrets to the police for them to use at their unfettered discretion. Or, as Murphy advises here, we can pause to take stock of our failures and our successes, appreciate what is truly at stake and what is truly to be gained, and change course toward a smarter DNA policy that is in everybodyand#8217;s interest.
Josiah Sutton was convicted of rape. He was five inches shorter and 65 pounds lighter than the suspect described by the victim, but at trial a lab analyst testified that his DNA was found at the crime scene. His case looked like many othersand#151;arrest, swab, match, conviction. But there was just one problemand#151;Sutton was innocent.
We think of DNA forensics as an infallible science that catches the bad guys and exonerates the innocent. But when the science goes rogue, it can lead to a gross miscarriage of justice. Erin Murphy exposes the dark side of forensic DNA testing: crime labs that receive little oversight and produce inconsistent results; prosecutors who push to test smaller and poorer-quality samples, inviting error and bias; law-enforcement officers who compile massive, unregulated, and racially skewed DNA databases; and industry lobbyists who push policies of and#147;stop and spit.and#8221;
DNA testing is rightly seen as a transformative technological breakthrough, but we should be wary of placing such a powerful weapon in the hands of the same broken criminal justice system that has produced mass incarceration, privileged government interests over personal privacy, and all too often enforced the law in a biased or unjust manner. Inside the Cell exposes the truth about forensic DNA, and shows us what it will take to harness the power of genetic identification in service of accuracy and fairness.
IS FORENSIC DNA THE NEXT FRONTIER OF GOVERNMENT SURVEILLANCE?
Current criminal justice policies have emboldened a system of mass incarceration, characterized by assembly-line justice, abuse of official power, racial and socioeconomic inequality, and unacceptable rates of wrongful conviction. Inside the Cell probes the scientific, statistical, legal, and ethical challenges presented by forensic DNA testing and explains how:
- DNA analysis is highly subjective, given the poor quality of many crime scene samples
- Crime labs operate with less oversight than your local nail salon
- DNA statistics can mislead jurors about the probability of a match
- Traces of DNA appear in places that a person never touched or visited
- and#147;Stop and spitand#8221; might be the new and#147;stop and friskand#8221;
- Police use tricks to sneak DNA samples from discarded items
- DNA databases are racially skewed, and current policies only aggravate that inequality
- DNA tests uncover genetic traits beyond just useless and#147;junkand#8221;
- Police maintain and#147;rogueand#8221; databases unregulated by law
About the Author
Erin Murphy is a professor at NYU School of Law and an expert in DNA forensics. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School. In addition to scholarly journals, her writing has appeared in Scientific American, New York Times, USA Today, Slate, San Francisco Chronicle, and Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMurphysLaw.