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DNA testing should be questioned, forensic science further developed

Published: Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 10:09

The corpse of a middle-aged man is found murdered in Central Park. The body is severely mutilated and certain parts have been dismembered. Detectives canvas the scene and find a bloody knife in a nearby trash can and a woman’s business card in the victim’s pocket. The knife has two samples of blood on it. The first blood sample matches the DNA of the victim and the second is supposedly the killer’s blood.

After tracking down the woman listed on the business card, the police obtain a DNA sample and test it against the second blood sample from the crime scene. The DNA matches perfectly. All signs point to the suspect murdering this man in cold blood – a seemingly open and shut case to the officers who investigate these types of crimes on a daily basis. The woman is arraigned and charged with murder.

The detectives investigating the case are friends of the alleged murderer and believe in her innocence, despite the irrefutable evidence. They inspect the neighborhood and do everything they can to discover the truth. What they uncover is a vast conspiracy to frame this woman and scientists who worked to fake the suspect’s DNA sample. Faking DNA evidence may seem like a far-fetched plot, but it is actually plausible. Researchers have found a way to create artificial DNA that will match any person they want it to.

To construct this fabricated DNA, all these scientists need is a small sample of DNA from the individual they want to set up, such as a hair follicle or saliva lingering on a cup, and a bag of any random person’s blood. The blood is then filtered by a process known as centrifuging, to remove any white blood cells, which are the ones that contain DNA. Then they take the hair follicle or whatever small biological sample was taken and the DNA is expanded into a much larger size using genome amplification. Afterward, they simply implant the amplified sample into the filtered blood and the frame job is complete.

Now, anyone in possession of this DNA can manufacture his or her own crime scene. Also, if the DNA is in a computerized database that can be accessed (such as the database our government uses to catalogue every criminal who has been in prison), then the scientist or whoever is faking the DNA does not need to obtain a sample from them and can simply use the database’s model to construct the fake DNA. Dan Frumkin, who ran the study at Nucleix (a company investigating the reality of artificial DNA amplification), claims that this process is so easy that any college student studying biology can pull it off.

The implications of this scientific breakthrough are frightening. DNA evidence has been the savior of forensic medicine and criminal prosecution. Countless men have been vindicated and freed from jail because of it. Vicious criminals who would have otherwise gotten away with their crimes have been put away for good. DNA was the golden standard of evidence that every prosecutor hoped for in their cases because it meant that the suspect was definitively guilty. But now, DNA is no longer irrefutable; it is borderline unreliable.

Any sophisticated criminal can easily frame the person of his or her choice for a crime, or even more alarming, a totalitarian government could use this technology to set up anyone it wants. Defense attorneys can also argue that DNA evidence should not be admissible in court anymore, and convicted criminals can claim their DNA was faked, which gives them grounds for appeal. This certainly puts our justice system back many years in progress toward eliminating wrongful prosecution and unsolved crimes.

The same researchers at Nucleix who developed the technique used to fake DNA evidence have also developed testing procedures that can determine whether or not the sample is authentic or not. Simply put, genuine DNA samples that come from a human body are methylated, and samples that are amplified in a test tube are not. However, these testing procedures are expensive and time-consuming. Current forensic departments in law enforcement do not conduct these tests, and state prosecutors do not request them before moving forward with trial. The consensus in the law enforcement community seems to be that these tests are unnecessary.

Legal analyst Dean Johnson was quoted by San Francisco’s ABC News 7 saying, “in my experience, the people that we arrest for murder, rape, robbery and child molestation generally don’t have a very good foundation in molecular biology.” That may very well be true, but one thing Dean didn’t consider is that the suspect wouldn’t be the one with the forensic knowledge to fake DNA: it would the person setting them up that the police would know nothing about.

I’m not claiming that this new technology will result in suspects being framed on a wide scale, but I am stating that the police and district attorneys’ offices throughout this country need to stay up to speed with forensic science. It may not seem worth it to those individuals approving the budgets for our crime labs, but when a person’s freedom and possibly his or her life is at stake, we need to do everything in our power to determine whether he or she is guilty or innocent.

Even worse, Nucleix and its various competitors are already working on a way to methylate artificial DNA samples, which would render the expensive testing we are currently not implementing useless. The field of forensic evidence is constantly improving; widely accepted scientific evidence is disproved or beaten on a regular basis. At the very least, we need to do everything we can to keep up with the scientific developments we are aware of. Otherwise, DNA evidence will become another perversion of justice that juries will convict on solely because they trust the science being presented to them.

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