December 5, 2011 By Wayne Hanson
In a case of life not imitating art, television programs featuring crime-scene investigations have exposed the shortcomings of real-life laboratory DNA evidence testing. On TV, DNA results come back very quickly, the case is solved, the innocent absolved and the perpetrator locked up. In real life, DNA on a case could take months or even years to be tested and the results returned. By one estimate, as many as 250,000 untested rape kits are sitting on shelves in the United States.
The problem is so pronounced that actress Mariska Hargitay — whose fictional character on Law & Order Special Victims Unit solves sex crimes — says she gets mail from real rape victims who can't understand why DNA from their cases was never tested.
So what is causing the backlog and what can be done about it? In a way, said Sorenson Forensics Executive Director Tim Kupferschmid, DNA is a victim of its own success. As more and more uses were found for it, laboratories were overwhelmed with cases.
DNA was used in the grim task of identifying human remains in the twin towers debris. It’s used to establish paternity, solve crimes and is even being used to prosecute illegal logging operations by comparing DNA from stumps in a protected forest, with logs arriving at a mill. And — in the “I'm not making this up” category — a Florida condominium is charging dog owners $200 to test their pets’ DNA to compare with dog-poop DNA and thus nab the culprits who fail to clean up after their pooches.
Kupferschmid says the exacting procedures themselves also have contributed to the delay — another departure from TV crime-show expectations. “Those samples have to be screened,” he said, “which is a tedious process. You have to find the biological material, and then you go through the whole DNA process to generate a profile, and sometimes the samples are not selected before testing to choose what samples would be most probative in a case, so that [slows] down the process.” And of course in the current economic environment, lack of funds, staff members who retire and aren’t replaced , etc., also contribute to the backlog.
If anyone is looking for evidence of DNA’s importance to justice, just ask the Innocence Project. Through DNA testing, the project has chronicled 280 post-conviction exonerations, and 17 were individuals under sentence of death.
Some 75 percent of those exonerated by DNA, says the Innocence Project, were wrongly identified by eyewitnesses, and the weight and certainty of DNA evidence have thrown doubt on the long-unchallenged validity of eyewitness identifications.
DNA for Property Crimes?
Kupferschmid, who calls the current DNA testing backlog “a travesty of justice,” sees even more opportunities for DNA when the backlog is handled. “DNA is left at every crime, burglaries, car break-ins, homicides and rapes,” he said. “Statistics show very clearly that you should be doing DNA from burglaries, etc., because those guys never stop at one burglary, they do thousands in their careers, and often over time they become more violent. So if you catch them early, there’s a real cost savings to society.”
A National Institute of Justice (NIJ) pilot study corroborates Kupferschmid’s assertion, saying that when DNA was taken from property crime scenes, more than twice as many suspects were identified, twice as many suspects were arrested and suspects were five times likelier to be identified through DNA evidence than through fingerprints.
“The results of the DNA Field Experiment have the potential to turn a significant component of our criminal justice system on its head,” said the NIJ on its website. “The implications are that dramatic.” Why isn’t it being done? The increase in DNA samples submitted to labs would further exacerbate the backlog.
But advances in DNA technology have the potential to speed up parts of the process and cut into the backlog. “Back in the late '80s and '90s, we were doing something called RFLP testing,” said Kupferschmid, “and that would take a minimum of six weeks to do a single sample. And you’d need a blood sample about the size of a quarter — a huge drop of blood by today’s standards.
PCR technology, developed in the late 1990s was the next step. “If we work around the clock,” said Kupferschmid, “we can do a DNA case in less than 48 hours, and the amount of DNA needed isn’t even visible to the naked eye. Just by touching your cell phone, for example, I can get enough DNA from it to get your DNA profile."
And on the horizon is an even faster procedure. “It’s being funded by the Department of Defense, and it’s called Rapid DNA,” he said. "And companies are building machines that can get a DNA profile in a single hour, and it’s so simple it can be used by a soldier or a police officer at the crime scene. It’s getting more like the tricorder on Star Trek.”
So the future of actual DNA work is finally beginning to look a bit like those crime analysis TV shows, even science fiction. Kupferschmid, however, says Rapid DNA probably won’t be available to police departments and sheriff’s offices for several more years.
What Do You Think?
Are television shows setting unrealistic expectations impossible to meet in real life? Or is DNA delayed justice denied? Have your say — contact firstname.lastname@example.org