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DNA Uses in Crime Investigation

A report issued by the Justice Department in 2002 indicated that two-thirds of chief prosecutors in the United States rely on DNA testing during investigations and trials. The use of DNA evidence has exonerated at least ten individuals who were wrongly convicted of murder and faced the death penalty, while the sentences of more than 100 others convicted of lesser crimes were overturned based upon DNA evidence. The FBI maintains a database that may be used to compare DNA samples from unsolved state and federal crimes. Since its inception in 1992, the FBI's database has made more than 5,000 matches, thus allowing law enforcement officials to solve crimes that might not have been solved without the use of DNA.

The FBI crime laboratory dominated research in forensic sciences for much of the 1980s and 1990s. However, allegations surfaced in 1995 that suggested scientists at the crime lab had tainted evidence related to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City. A former chemist in the lab, Frederic White-hurst, testified before the House Committee on the Judiciary that the FBI had knowingly drafted misleading scientific reports and pressured FBI scientists to commit perjury by backing up the false reports. These allegations injured the FBI's reputation and led to speculation in the late 1990s that prosecutors could not rely on the FBI's analysis of DNA evidence.

Even as the FBI rebuilt its reputation, other questions surrounding the use of DNA evidence have arisen since the late 1990s. In 1999, the department of justice issued a report stating that evidence from at least 180,000 unsolved rape cases had not been submitted for testing. A 2002 report by USA Today suggested that several thousand pieces of evidence from rape and Homicide cases had not been submitted for DNA testing, so they do not appear in the FBI's database. In 2000, Congress allocated $125 million to support the national DNA database system, including $45 million designated to allow states to test evidence from unsolved crimes. However, several states claim that their law enforcement officials are so swamped with current cases that they cannot test older, unsolved cases. Moreover, a small number of states—primarily New York, Florida, Virginia, and Illinois—have aggressively developed their own DNA databases and have contributed heavily to the FBI's system. These states accounted for more than half of the FBI's DNA matches between 1992 and 2002.

Use of DNA evidence to overturn criminal convictions remains a common topic of discussion among legal and criminal justice experts, as well as the popular media. One of the most closely followed cases involved the convictions of five young men for the rape of a jogger in Central Park in New York City in 1989. The five men in the case, dubbed the "Central Park Jogger Case," served sentences ranging from seven to eleven years for the incident. However, another man, Matias Reyes, who was convicted for murder in 1989, confessed to the rape. Testing confirmed that the semen found in the victim and on the victim's sock matched Reyes's DNA.

Upon receiving the new evidence, the New York County district attorney's office asked the New York State Supreme Court to overturn the convictions of the five men. Several groups, including Women's Rights groups, cited this case as an example of why law enforcement should be more proactive in pursuing unsolved rape cases through the use of DNA testing.
Further readings

Bennett, Margann. 1995. "Admissibility Issues of Forensic DNA Evidence." University of Kansas Law Review 44 (November).

"Confronting the New Challenges of Scientific Evidence: DNA Evidence and the Criminal Defense." 1995. Harvard Law Review 108 (May).

Federal Bureau of Investigation. 1994. Handbook of Forensic Science. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Research Council. 1992. DNA Technology in Forensic Science. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Wright, Eric E. 1995. "DNA Evidence: Where We've Been, Where We Are, and Where We Are Going." Maine Bar Journal 10 (July).

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