Welcome Sheldon Krimsky (Tufts University) (Defending Science) and Tania Simoncelli (Council for Responsible Genetics), and Host Gabe Rottman (ACLU)

Genetic Justice: DNA Data Banks, Criminal Investigations, and Civil Liberties

Genetic Justice kicks off with a story that would almost be comedic, were it not so underlain with tragedy. For two decades, German police hunted a serial killer nicknamed the “Phantom of Heilbronn,” who by 2009 was described by police as “Germany’s most dangerous woman.” The only connection among the Phantom’s six vicious murders and assorted other violent crimes was a matching female DNA sample. German authorities spent more than $18 million on the case, tied up more than 100 police officers and prosecutors for years and launched a “DNA dragnet” across four countries, securing DNA samples from thousands of innocent women.

Then, in an unrelated case, police took a DNA sample from the fingerprints of a man in France. Reasonably expecting to find male DNA, authorities were shocked when it matched the Phantom. It turns out that the cotton swabs used to do the sampling were all contaminated with the same factory worker’s DNA. A simple mistake, and one that underscores the acute and underappreciated limitations of forensic DNA analysis and the DNA databanks that are the focus of this compelling book.

These databanks started off relatively modest. They collected DNA samples from those convicted of serious crimes, which would then be matched against samples taken from future crime scenes. But, over the years, federal and state authorities significantly expanded the databanks to include samples from individuals convicted of relatively minor crimes, and even people who are arrested and then cleared of charges.

Authors Sheldon Krimsky and Tania Simoncelli begin by surveying the history and growth of forensic DNA analysis and DNA databanks in the United States. They then cover a series of discrete issues raised by the technology, including the use of “DNA dragnets,” like the one in Phantom case, where police use various means to acquire DNA samples from large groups of people; “familial” DNA profiling, a controversial tactic where police use partial matches to identify individuals who may be related to a suspect; surreptitious DNA sampling, which includes instances where police trick a suspect into providing a DNA sample; the positive use of DNA forensic analysis to clear individuals wrongly convicted of crime; and proposals for a “universal” DNA databank that would profile everyone, not just people in the criminal justice system.

The rest of the book tracks international developments, including detailed discussions of the growth of DNA databanks in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Australia and Japan. It concludes by exploring the various policy considerations raised by the limitations of DNA databanks as crime fighting tools. Namely, it covers the obvious and not-so-obvious privacy implications of DNA databanks, and the danger that racial disparities in the criminal justice system will be amplified through these databanks. It also explodes the myth of DNA infallibility, and explores just how effective these databanks are at detecting and deterring crime. Finally, it ends with a series of basic principles, which, if followed as a matter of both law and policy, would go a long way toward the responsible use of DNA in law enforcement.

Genetic Justice provides an accessible, yet exhaustive, review of this vital public policy issue. Many of us fail to appreciate that every time we discard a coffee cup, use a napkin, eat with a fork and spoon or otherwise interact with our environment, we leave a piece of ourselves behind. And that piece of ourselves—that DNA—can be used not just to discern our identity, but to provide clues on whether we’re likely to develop a particular disease, what we look like and where we come from. The physical trail of DNA can also be used to track our movements, and legal theories that permit the authorities to freely collect this “abandoned” DNA could theoretically make the warrant requirement and other checks on law enforcement abuse obsolete.

The issues raised by Genetic Justice may be complicated, but they are crucially important to our modern civil liberties. And, as the technology for analyzing DNA becomes smaller, faster and cheaper, these considerations just become more pressing. Genetic Justice provides a needed glimpse into that brave new world.

Sheldon Krimsky is the Carol Zicklin Visiting Professor of Philosophy, Brooklyn College and Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, Tufts University. He has published 10 books (with one more forthcoming) and more than 175 essays and reviews that explore the moral implications of science for society, and has consulted for the Presidential Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research and the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

Tania Simoncelli worked for more than six years as the Science Advisor to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she guided the organization’s responses to cutting-edge developments in genetics, neuroscience and public health policy. She has written and spoken extensively on emerging forensic DNA techniques and practices, and their legal and social implications. She currently works for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Krimsky and Simoncelli collaborated on Genetic Justice while Professor Krimsky was a visiting scholar at the ACLU. The book won the Gold Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards in the category “Current Events I: Political, Economic, Legal and Media.”


[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

88 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Sheldon Krimsky and Tania Simoncelli, Genetic Justice: DNA Data Banks, Criminal Investigations, and Civil Liberties”

BevW November 10th, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Sheldon, Tania, Gabe, Welcome to the Lake.

Gabe, Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

BevW November 10th, 2012 at 1:51 pm

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Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 1:54 pm
In response to BevW @ 2

Hi folks,

This is Sheldon Krimsky one of the authors of “Genetic Justice.”
I am happy to entertain your questions or comments.

hpschd November 10th, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Welcome to FDL!

I’ve been reading the book and I have a few questions.

One aspect of possible false positive results is the difficulty of samples with multiple DNA contributors.

How reliable is the ‘purifying’ or separating process with genetically related contributors?

dakine01 November 10th, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Good afternoon Sheldon, Tania and Gabe and welcome to FDL this afternoon.

Sheldon and Tania, I have not read your book so forgive me if you address this in there but it seems as a companion to the point Gabe makes in the intro about contamination and using DNA to clear falsely accused through the innocence projects, there is the issue of false analysis of DNA to convict an innocent individual. I know there have been a few cases (including a current one in MA I believe) where a lab tech falsified the results. Given how conditioned people have become to give the benefit to the “scientists” (thanks to all the cop procedural shows on TV), how prevalent is this as a problem?

Gabe Rottman November 10th, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Hi Sheldon and Tania — great to be hosting this discussion. Looks like we have a question out there already.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 2:02 pm
In response to BevW @ 1

Thank you, Gabe.

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 2:02 pm
In response to hpschd @ 4

That is a great question! Mixed DNA samples always represent a challenge.
Remember the forensic profile biols down to 26 numbers at 13 sites on 13 of the 23 chormosomes. So if two brothers have their DNA on a crime scene site and they are trying to figure out what the DNA of each person is, they will have to make some guesses because there will be many possibilities. For the police to get a forensic DNA profile of someone they know they will have to submit the guesses into the federal database and generate a suspect. No guarantees.

Gabe Rottman November 10th, 2012 at 2:02 pm

And just to follow up on dakine01, I’ve personally been wondering why shows like CSI promote the myths of infallibility, objectivity and the like? Is it just good entertainment?

hpschd November 10th, 2012 at 2:05 pm
In response to Sheldon Krimsky @ 8

A fear that I have is of the biblical curse of the ‘sins of the parents being visited on the children’ – searching DNA databases for multi-generational profiling, with the added threat of full analysis of preserved physical DNA samples.

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 2:08 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 5

The resent case in Massachusetts did not involve DNA evidence. A chemist working in forensic chemistry for the state bothced up samples of chemicals taken from suspects. She mishandled numrous samples and made the results unacceptable.

That has already happened in a few labs processing DNA information. That led to higher standards for handling DNA. Human error as well as ineptitude and conscious bias is always possible

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 2:11 pm
In response to Gabe Rottman @ 9

I agree that the media trivializes the human possibilities of mishandling DNA samples.
A recent study gave well trained forensic scientists samples to validate. There were errors and room for interpretation. Even with well trained technicians the process is not fallible. When executed correctly it is a powerful tool for making an identification.

Gabe Rottman November 10th, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Sheldon, just how prevalent do you think human error is in the databanking world? Is it a question of lack of resources, poor training, just the nature of laboratory science, a mixture of all of the above?

johnnyred November 10th, 2012 at 2:15 pm

The arguments for universal DNA collection fall back on the old “If you have nothing to hide” canard. Still, I don’t see it being curtailed in the future. The Security State shall prevail.

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 2:16 pm
In response to hpschd @ 10

The point that you are raising about sins of the family is best exemplified by “familial DNA searching.” If there is no exact match from the crime scene DNA with the profiles on the federal database–CODIS, some states allow police to search for a close match. Once such a match appears, then the entire family of the “closely matched” profile is subject to investigation. Familial searches were not part of the original goals of setting up DNA profiles–but the criminal justice system has been lobbying for more power to do “familial searches.”

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 2:16 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 5

Great question. It is difficult to estimate how prevalent this is as a problem, in part because there is considerable variation in terms of the standards that crime labs employ for preventing these sorts of things from happening. See Ch. 16 of the book. There are some known cases of falsification, and perhaps just as worrisome if not more, some very disconcerting cases of outright sloppiness in DNA handling and analysis. Over the last few years, quite a number of labs have come under investigation. The Houston Crime Lab Investigation was one of the most extensive. That investigation was triggered after a young man, Josiah Sutton, was released from prison after serving 5 years for a crime he could not have committed. His conviction rested almost entirely on the basis of an error in interpreting a DNA test.

kafka November 10th, 2012 at 2:18 pm

I’ve got a product that will make millions from sales to criminals. I call it DNASpray(tm). See, it’s an aerosol can filled with random human DNA bits from thousands of donors (whom I’ll pay, of course). Commit the crime then spray the crime scene – it’ll fuck up the DNA crime lab gig.

hpschd November 10th, 2012 at 2:20 pm

It is clear that the CODIS database is heavily racially biased, based on the prison population.

Is there any data in CODIS on its specific racial composition? Is CODIS analyzed for age, sex, race, location, etc?

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 2:20 pm
In response to Gabe Rottman @ 13

The probability of error in showing a match is higher than the errors in showing a mismatch. If you want to validate “All Swans Are White” and you go around surveying swans and make your conclusion, you might have missed a black swan.
But if you find one black swan, you have falsified the statement “All Swans are White.” Similarly proving a non-match has lower probability of error than demonstrating an exact match.

There has not been a systematic study of errors in making matches with DNA profiles with the exception of the one study I cited previously.

Gabe Rottman November 10th, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I’m still taken aback at how contrary that is to the prevailing narrative. Do you think there’s any appetite, Tania, for standardizing “best practices” at the federal level in how these samples are taken and maintained? It seems like one of the biggest issues with CODIS is there’s no uniformity at the state level.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 2:21 pm
In response to johnnyred @ 14

There is some hope. There have been some successful cases challenging the expansion of DNA databases to arrestees (see ch. 14). The ACLU of California has a case that is pending in the 9th Circuit as well.

johnnyred November 10th, 2012 at 2:22 pm
In response to kafka @ 17

Difficult to imagine what kind of establishment would sell such a product, but I guess you could market it online. You need a new Ron Popiel.

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 2:22 pm
In response to kafka @ 17

You bet!!
There is already a lot of discussion in the prisons about how to circumvent DNA evidence in a crime scene. That is why Ms. Simoncelli and I were not in favor of prosecuting someone exclusively on DNA–there must be other evidence.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 2:23 pm
In response to hpschd @ 18

The FBI does not track this data within CODIS. One can only infer the data on the basis of arrest and conviction rates. What is especially worrisome is that expansion of databanks to arrestees (and familial searching) are no doubt exacerbating that racial bias in the system.

Gabe Rottman November 10th, 2012 at 2:26 pm

It seems like that particular problem doesn’t have a ready solution: we lock up more persons of color, so it’s more likely that a person of color will come up in one of these databanks, and on and on. Vicious cycle. Do you think there’s any way to use DNA databanks without making that problem worse?

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 2:26 pm
In response to hpschd @ 18

The FBI, unlike its counterpart in the UK, does not provide ethinic and racial data on the composition of CODIS. In the UK, at one time there were figures like: one third of all the British blacks between teenage years and early adulthood on the database.

There are data on the number of felonies (murders, rapes, etc) based on race/ethnicity each year. With a few assumptions you can figure out what the composition of the national database would be if every felon’s DNA were placed in the database.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 2:28 pm
In response to Gabe Rottman @ 20

There have been some proposals in this regard. The Innocence Project has been working on this issue for some time. There is clearly considerable work to be done, but I suspect that if there are more and more investigations of labs, the need for better standards in this area will rise to the level of attention it deserves.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 2:30 pm

There was a study done in Israel on this very issue — the study showed how easy it was to fabricate DNA and spread it around a crime scene. It was covered in the NYT and we discuss it in our book… I think in Ch. 16!

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 2:32 pm
In response to Gabe Rottman @ 25

The deeper problem is the racialization of the entire criminal justice system. African Americans (or people of color in general) are more likely to be picked up on drug charges than whites–more drug arrests occur among people of color. That is a systemic racial bias in the policing function.

Alternatively, there are very few convicted felonies in white collar crimes compared to violation of drug laws.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 2:33 pm
In response to Gabe Rottman @ 25

We need to address the underlying racial biases in the criminal justice system. DNA technology seems inherently fair/impartial, but the problem, of course, is that simply adding it to an already biased system just means that those biases will be exacerbated.

BevW November 10th, 2012 at 2:34 pm

I understand the labs are under scrutiny, but how much of the problem / errors are created by the police local/state that collect the DNA to start with, and handle it before the labs?

Gabe Rottman November 10th, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Right, absolutely. It seems like these databanks, even if perfectly infallible, can only serve to make that problem far worse. Unrelatedly, in chapter 2, you quote Judge Reinhardt on the Ninth Circuit who noted that these databanks could literally be used to “eliminate political opposition.” What exactly do you think Judge Reinhardt is referring to there?

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 2:37 pm

Yes, the case in Israel is cited on p. 300 Ch. 16 “On Fallibility.”

hpschd November 10th, 2012 at 2:37 pm

There is a real threat to privacy in preserving the DNA samples in addition to the CODIS type analysis. Particularly to the possible leaking of information regarding health-related probabilities (to employers and insurance companies).

In the book it is mentioned that only Wisconsin requires the actual DNA samples to be destroyed, only the data is saved. BUT – this had not happened, no samples have been destroyed.

Has this changed? Are there any further attempts, anywhere, to destroy the samples?

Do the ‘rules of evidence’ affect this?

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 2:42 pm
In response to Gabe Rottman @ 32

OK, my best interpretation of his remarks is that ‘surveillance” of innocent people creates fear (we have seen it all too often in totalitarian countries). Fear of surveillance will suppress free sspeach and freedom of assembly. DNA databanks is surveillance. If you are at a rally and you are not violating a law, you might like to maintain your privacy. With a national universal DNA databank and the fact that you are shedding cells everywhere, you could be track–that is pwerful surveillance. The only thing more powerful would be if were require to wear a GPS bracelet so the government can know exactly where you are at any time.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 2:42 pm
In response to BevW @ 31

It’s impossible to know how often these errors are occurring. What we know is that mistakes in collection and handling of DNA have occurred. Contamination and misinterpretation of the test results has also occurred. We only know when it becomes clear that a mistake must have occurred — for example, there is a case where a cold hit occurred in a rape case. But the hit was to an individual who would have been 4 years old at the time of the crime! It turned out that individual’s DNA was processed by the lab on the same day as the DNA that had been collected from the crime scene was processed.

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 2:45 pm
In response to hpschd @ 34

I am not aware (perhaps Tania can also reply) of any state in the US that currently destroys the biological sample after a felon’s DNA profile is taken. This is done in Japan, Germany and sometimes in Austrlia. As far as I know the federal rules of evidence would not preclude the destruction of the biological sample when what you are looking for is “identification.” If you have a suspect and you take the DNA profile, if there is any question about the validity of the profile, you can always retake the biological sample. You do not have to have the sample on file in perpetuity.

Gabe Rottman November 10th, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Kind of a genetic “panopticon.” It struck me that if folks knew they could end up in a database for political activity (especially with, for instance, the continued use of mass no-cause arrests during protests), it would place a huge chill on speech and assembly.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Agreed. The lead plaintiff in the case that is pending before the 9th Circuit is a woman named Lily Haskell who was, indeed, arrested at a peace rally. While not charged of a crime, she was forced to leave a DNA sample and her DNA is now being indefinitely retained in the CA database, simply because she was exercising her right to speak out. What message does this send to others who have an interest in participating in events like these and having their voices heard?

Suzanne November 10th, 2012 at 2:52 pm

welcome to fdl! i’m still reading this book so maybe this is answered there, in which case forgive the question. i recently saw a nova science now on pbs called forensics on trial. the show points out that it really boils down to human interpretation of the data and how the science of forensics is more art than science. do you think that it is up to the scientific community or the legal system to push to show that dna profiling is fraught with potential for errors and more like lie-detector results rather than hard science?

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Sheldon is correct. No other states have required destruction of the biological samples, as has been the policy in Germany, Japan and Australia. To be clear, we would not advocate destruction of the crime scene samples. It is very important that these be maintained.

Gabe Rottman November 10th, 2012 at 2:52 pm

That’s a very interesting point about retention. I fully realize it makes no sense when you can just go take a sample from an individual in custody to ensure no mistakes have been made, but what about familial searching, etc., after the person has been released? Would retention there ever make sense?

Peterr November 10th, 2012 at 2:57 pm

How has your book been received in the scientific community (as opposed to the law enforcement community)?

I’m married to a research scientist, and nothing drives her up a wall faster than (a) non-scientists trying to stretch the data or data analysis further than it warrants, and (b) sloppy lab work. It strikes me that both are serious factors in the use of DNA in police/criminal situations.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 2:59 pm
In response to Suzanne @ 40

I would not go so far as to say that DNA testing is more like lie detection than hard science. I think what is most important is that there is considerable case-to-case variation in the nature and quality of DNA evidence. Put another way, it’s only as good as the quality of sample that you were able to collect at the crime scene. DNA extracted from a vaginal swab of a rape victim is far more probative than DNA taken from a cigarette butt on the street where a crime was committed, for example.

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 3:00 pm

I am adding to my last remark. Ironically, the biological samples we should be saving are the crime scene samples. The are sometimes discarded and thus prevent falsely convicted felons from proving their innocence.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:02 pm
In response to Peterr @ 43

Quite well, actually. The majority of reviews have appeared in the scientific literature (including Science, American Scientist, New Scientist, others…) Some of them are on the Columbia U Press webpage for the book. We also had a number of scientists review the book, or at least select chapters that dealt with the underlying science.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Last remark? Sheldon, I believe we are on through 7 PM, yes?

BevW November 10th, 2012 at 3:03 pm

After 1921 when the polygraph was “invented” and brought into use by law enforcement, I suspect that J Edgar Hoover (FBI) promoted the “Lie Detector” in his “Gangbusters” radio shows, and in the movies, now most people know polygraphs are not used in court.

Is this the same situation we have now with all the CSI shows on tv / film? Will DNA become just a tool to assist in investigations – instead of the holy grail? We have all heard of the CSI Effect with juries.

BevW November 10th, 2012 at 3:04 pm

The salon goes up to 7:00pm Eastern.

Gabe Rottman November 10th, 2012 at 3:05 pm
In response to BevW @ 48

Also, just to piggyback on BevW, is it possible that, as the technology improves, any of these problems could be ameliorated or resolved?

Suzanne November 10th, 2012 at 3:05 pm
In response to BevW @ 48

thanks bev — that was the point i was trying to make with my earlier lie detector reference.

Peterr November 10th, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Quality of the sample is a necessary condition, but not sufficient in and of itself. The cleanliness of the lab (including the lab’s suppliers, as the story in the post proves), the rigor with which they analyze the sample, and the way in which they write up the results matter are also necessary. Errors in any one of these is problematic at best and most likely disqualifying.

The quality of the “match” is only as good as the weakest link of the analytical chain.

hpschd November 10th, 2012 at 3:07 pm

I would expect that samples taken for comparison or from non-convicted individuals should be disposed.

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 3:08 pm
In response to Suzanne @ 40

In the early years of DNA profiling there was contorversy among scientists about the methods used for matching DNA samples. That controversy led to better methods that have been largely accepted by even the original critics. According to the National Academy of Sciences, forensic DNA matches/mismatches are much more relable than other forensic techniques including fingerprints, bite marks, knife marks linked to specific knives etc. Human error and in more complex cases like determining the forensic samples in mixtures, where some judgment must be made, still remains the greatest source of mistakes.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:08 pm
In response to BevW @ 48

Let’s hope so. DNA IS just a tool, and only a tool. Viewing it as anything more will only lead to mistakes and errors and miscarriages of justice.

Peterr November 10th, 2012 at 3:10 pm

I haven’t read the book yet, so apologies if this is covered there, but do you get into the amount of money that various law enforcement agencies put into their forensic labs? I’ve seen stories of various labs closing because of budget cuts at the state and local levels, but don’t know how widespread that is.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:11 pm
In response to Gabe Rottman @ 50

The testing may improve as it becomes more sensitive and more automated. But there will always be the possibility for human error around collection and handling of the DNA. Also, as the technology improves, so do the opportunities for planting or masking DNA evidence.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:12 pm
In response to Peterr @ 52

Agreed! We discuss all of these sources of error in the book (see Ch. 16)

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 3:15 pm
In response to Peterr @ 52

For those interested in a study of error in DNA mixture interpretation see the following study.

Subjectivity and bias in forensic DNA mixture interpretation
Itiel E. Dror a,b,⁎, Greg Hampikian c
a Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London (UCL), London, UK
b Cognitive Consultants International (CCI), London, UK
c Departments of Biology and Criminal Justice, Boise State University, USA

hpschd November 10th, 2012 at 3:15 pm

In his book “The End of Illness”, Dr. David B. Agus describes an evolving technology of ‘protein analysis’. This being a diagnostic tool much more informative than the probabilistic medical determinations of DNA analysis.

I can imagine this being used forensically in the future.

Gabe Rottman November 10th, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Out of curiosity, is there a U.S. jurisdiction or foreign country with a particularly good record on DNA databanking and civil liberties?

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:16 pm
In response to hpschd @ 53

Some state statutes (California’s, for example) allow for DNA samples and profiles to be expunged from the database if a person is not charged or convicted of a crime. However, often, the process involved in making this request is extremely burdensome (requires hiring a lawyer, etc.) Sheldon and I advocate in the book that expungement should occur automatically in these cases — in other words, the burden should be on the state, not the individual.

Peterr November 10th, 2012 at 3:18 pm

How are the differences between privacy laws in the US and Europe playing out with regard to DNA databases?

In banking privacy cases, Europe and the US are engaged in a rather big tug-of-war regarding the use of banking data — is the same thing happening regarding these databases, or is everyone on the same page?

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 3:19 pm
In response to Peterr @ 56

All states have forensic labs–all are part of the national CODIS network. But there are also labs within certain police jurisdictions. Most large cities have labs. It is certainly possible that budget cuts will limit the timely testing of samples. Some crime scene samples have remained in the coffers for months. Not all the labs have the same standards or the same quality technicians.

hpschd November 10th, 2012 at 3:22 pm

The CODIS analysis looks for markers for 13 segments of the chromosomes and sorts the cut up bits by lengths (if I understand this correctly). Is a further analysis ever done, checking actual genome sequences?

If not, why save more than the actual ‘junk DNA’ sections used for the CODIS analysis.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:22 pm
In response to Peterr @ 56

We don’t address the funding issue, directly. However, we do talk to some extent about the problems with backlogs (that have resulted in part from insufficient funding). And we point out the problem that the database laws are expanding to ever more categories of individuals, requiring extensive resources to carry out all of that testing, while rape kits are sitting on shelves.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:23 pm

William C. Thompson has also written extensively on this issue.

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 3:26 pm
In response to hpschd @ 60

The idea of using proteins or DNA other than the 13 loci for forensic purposes has been widely discussed. The reason that the biological sample is much different than thumbprints is that it reveals information about ancestry (within limits), certain diseases or disease traits, and paternity or family similarities. Last year scientists claimed they can predict hair color from DNA. In the future, forensic investigators may push the use of Coding DNA that reveal some phenotype, which the current 13 Loci do not do.

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 3:30 pm
In response to Peterr @ 63

Each country is responsible for its own privacy laws. I am not aware of any international effort to harmonize the taking, storing or analysis of DNA profiles. Interpol uses DNA profiles from the various participating countries. Some of the countries do not use the same loci as the US so there has to be some accommodation to differences.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:33 pm
In response to Gabe Rottman @ 61

Germany has some interesting policies – for example, the requirement that DNA samples collected from suspects or convicted individuals be destroyed immediately upon profiling. The UK situation is quite interesting, since this was arguably the worst example, yet public outcry about the retention of DNA from arrestees (including children as young as 10) has contributed to a shift in policy.

Peterr November 10th, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Not all the labs have the same standards or the same quality technicians.

That is a recipe for disaster.

Or at least for lots and lots of legal wrangling, which amounts to the same thing.

Sheldon Krimsky November 10th, 2012 at 3:35 pm
In response to johnnyred @ 14

If you are correct then the national government should have all of our fingerprints–I doubt they do.

Peterr November 10th, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Do they allow sharing with databases that do NOT destroy these kinds of samples?

Gabe Rottman November 10th, 2012 at 3:38 pm

In the book, you discuss at length the myth of “the infallibility of the cold hit,” that a “cold match” hit in a large database is just as probative of guilt as a match to a suspect. Has anyone ever checked CODIS to see how many profiles match on a large number of loci (or on all 13)?

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:39 pm
In response to hpschd @ 65

Until recently, no other parts of the DNA were examined beyond the 13 alleles used in “DNA identification.” However, some familial searching techniques rely on examination of “rare alleles” or ancestry testing, which relies on Y-chromosome analysis and mitochondrial DNA sequencing. One of the arguments that law enforcement tends to put forth regarding sample retention is that they want to hold onto the samples in case the technology changes. One might question, however, the cost of re-testing all of the 9 million plus samples currently stored in the databanks across the country…

hpschd November 10th, 2012 at 3:41 pm

It is a lot easier to collect my ‘abandoned DNA’ (without my knowledge or consent) than getting my fingerprints. DNA is a primary source, and represents a great deal more about me than mere identification.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:42 pm
In response to hpschd @ 65

I should also add that law enforcement has ordered other genetic tests — including ancestry testing and hair/eye color prediction testing — on crime scene samples, out of an effort to generate part of a physical description of the perpetrator.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:44 pm
In response to Peterr @ 73

Good question. I’m not sure, actually. Important question given the move toward international/global database.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:47 pm
In response to Gabe Rottman @ 74

Great question. There is considerable interest on the part of the scientific community to do this. However, so far, the FBI will not allow it. A study of this sort was done on the Arizona database and the results were somewhat alarming. The database had, at the time, 65,000 entries corresponding to convicted offenders on file. Approximately 1 in every 228 profiles matched another profile in the database at 9 or more loci!!

Gabe Rottman November 10th, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Crazy. Do you think part of that is tied into the racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system? Isn’t there likely to be a greater level of matching within racial and ethnic populations?

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:53 pm
In response to hpschd @ 76

Agreed! One of the challenges for those of us who would like to see greater protections put in place around our DNA is the fact that we shed our DNA everywhere we go. Law enforcement has succeeded in convincing some courts that this DNA is “abandoned” and therefore up for grabs. I think this is a strange concept — we abandon our trash at the curb by intentionally putting it out. But we don’t intend to shed our DNA. And we certainly don’t expect that someone will come along after us, collect it, and send it off to a lab. Surreptitious DNA collection is, I think, one of the most important issues around the use of DNA by law enforcement.

BevW November 10th, 2012 at 3:53 pm

As we come to the end of this great Book Salon discussion,

Sheldon, Tania, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book and DNA Banks and Justice. Congratulations on the Gold Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards.

Gabe, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Sheldon’s website (Tufts Univ.) and book (Genetic Justice)

Tania’s website (FDA) and book (Genetic Justice)

Gabe’s website (ACLU)

Thanks all, Have a great weekend.

Seth Rosenfeld / Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power; Hosted by Todd Gitlin

If you would like to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

hpschd November 10th, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Thank you Tania and Sheldon for your excellent book and your patient responses.

This is yet another critical issue that is both complex and misunderstood. You have done much to clarify the interaction of science and law.

Thanks to Bev and all for a great book salon.

hpschd November 10th, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Everywhere I’ve been, there I am.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 3:56 pm
In response to Gabe Rottman @ 80

Possibly. There may have been some errors, as well — for example, repeat entries.

Tania Simoncelli November 10th, 2012 at 4:01 pm
In response to BevW @ 82

Thanks, Bev. And thanks Gabe.
Actually, to clarify, for more information, do not go to FDA (none of what I’ve said here relates to my work there or should be viewed as the FDA’s position or the position). However, you might take a look at ACLU’s website, and in particular, the ACLU of N. California’s website for information about their ongoing case challenging CA’s databanking law. https://www.aclunc.org/
Thank you!

Elliott November 10th, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Thank you both, this has been absolutely fascinating.

The implications are astounding

(and thanks Bev!)

Suzanne November 10th, 2012 at 4:08 pm

thanks for coming to chat with us today. a good conversation and lots of information to chew on… both here and in the book. thank you for both.

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