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.”
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