The advent of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) evidence is one of the best examples of how much technology has altered the criminal justice landscape, particularly its use to exonerate the falsely convicted. DNA evidence technically doesn't pinpoint a single suspect, but rather narrows it down to just a few possibilities within the human population. However, it's extremely accurate and useful as long as it is handled and analyzed properly.
Continue reading to learn more about how DNA evidence works and how it could impact you or your loved ones.
What is DNA?
DNA is the basic building block of life. The information encoded in an organism's DNA acts as a blueprint for the organism's biological development and functioning. DNA exists in the cells of all living organisms, and by testing the DNA found in a person's cell, scientists can come up with a DNA profile for that individual. Only one-tenth of 1 percent of human DNA differs from one individual to the next and, although estimates vary, studies suggest that forensic DNA analysis is roughly 95 percent accurate.
The Development of Forensic DNA Evidence
DNA profiling of individuals didn't even exist, however, until the mid-1980s, when an English scientist, Dr. Alec Jeffreys, discovered that certain areas of the DNA strand contain patterns that repeat many times. The number of these repetitions varies between individuals (except for identical twins, who have the exact same DNA), and Dr. Jeffreys developed a test to measure the variation in length of these repetitions. Using this test, Dr. Jeffreys found that he was able to identify individuals by comparing samples of their DNA. This test that Dr. Jeffreys developed became known as restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP).
RFLP is an accurate and reliable test, but it requires a relatively large amount of DNA to work. Laboratories now use tests based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method, which allows for testing on very small amounts of DNA from biological samples.
How DNA is Sourced and Analyzed
Investigators can collect DNA from a number of different sources. Almost any biological evidence can contain DNA, although not every sample contains sufficient amounts of DNA to enable DNA profiling.
Forensic investigators will analyze the biological samples to get a DNA profile of the individual(s) that the samples came from. If investigators already have suspect(s) in mind, they can collect samples to compare to the evidence collected at the scene. There are also databases of DNA profiles that investigators can use to identify suspects by comparing the database information to the DNA profile obtained from the biological evidence.
Accuracy of DNA Evidence
Assuming that investigators properly collect and handle biological evidence and forensic scientists employ accepted methods and conduct the analysis correctly, DNA evidence is extremely accurate. The chances of one individual's DNA profile matching another person's are extremely small -- about one in a billion by some estimates (but there is quite a bit of debate about this). Compared to fingerprinting or eyewitness testimony, which both have inherent flaws and inaccuracies, DNA evidence is a highly effective way to match a suspect to biological samples collected during a criminal investigation.
Because of its accuracy, criminal lawyers increasingly rely on this type of evidence to prove a defendant's guilt or innocence. This type of evidence has also exonerated people through postconviction analysis of biological samples. Since DNA analysis didn't exist until recently, a reexamination of evidence collected during older investigations can reveal that the DNA profile of the person convicted of the crime does not match the DNA profile from biological samples collected at crime scenes.
Human Error and Admissibility
DNA evidence is not unassailable, however. Errors in the collection and/or handling of the biological samples used for the DNA analysis can result in it being excluded at trial. Similarly, if a lab contaminates the biological sample or is found to use unreliable methods, a judge may reject it at trial.
When challenging this type of evidence, defense attorneys will usually focus on the behavior of the investigators and forensic analysts in an attempt to cast doubt on the results of DNA profiles, rather than attack the reliability of DNA profiling as a whole. A well-known example of this is the defense strategy used in the O.J. Simpson trial. Additionally, each state has difference rules regarding evidence, and any failure to comply with the particulars of each states requirements can result in a refusal of the court to examine DNA evidence.
Have More Questions About How DNA Evidence Works? Talk to a Lawyer
Juries find DNA evidence compelling and convincing, but a close examination sometimes reveals flaws in the collection and processing of evidence of this kind. For instance, evidence that is improperly labeled may incriminate the wrong suspect. If you have questions about evidence or criminal charges, you should speak with a criminal defense attorney immediately.