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Potential limitations to DNA evidence

There have been several recent media accounts of errors in DNA labs. Many have involved errors in the handling of DNA evidence by lab personnel. However, a recent article highlights other ways that this type of evidence can be contaminated.

In one case, investigators found DNA on a crime scene’s fingernails that belonged to a man who had been indisposed at a medical center during the night when the robbery occurred. Prosecutors couldn’t formulate a theory that would explain how the man could have been in two different places at once.

Despite the factual inconsistency, authorities nevertheless arrested and incarcerated the man for over five months on a pending murder charge. Only after that ostensibly wrongful arrest and imprisonment did prosecutors realize that the same paramedic response personnel may have transported the man to the medical center, and later arrived on the crime scene -- all in the same night.

Admittedly, some North Carolina readers might regard this story as an anomaly. Sometimes the truth may seem stranger than fiction. Yet perhaps what is most troubling in this case is that authorities maintained their prosecution against the man. That blind insistence speaks to the persuasive effect of DNA evidence.

Many lawyers and jurors might not be scientists, and might not have a context for challenging claims that DNA evidence can uniquely fingerprint every individual, or that it should always be regarded as highly incriminating. To the contrary, the level of analysis of collected DNA samples might result in different profiles matching. An audit of one state’s DNA database suggested that almost 150 pairs out of 65,000 profiles could have resulted in an erroneous match.

Source: The New York Times, "High-Tech, High-Risk Forensics," Osagie K. Obasogie, July 24, 2013