My guess is that the idea of framing someone else for a crime came only minutes after the first crime was committed. If Cain had neighbors, or co-workers, or a creepy guy down the street, I think he probably would have tried to put Abel’s death off on him. Avoiding culpability by placing it on someone else isn’t new and it begins at an early age. A child, his hand still stuck literally in the cookie jar, will try to blame his imaginary friend—a less creative child will blame the cookie monster. The next logical and tangible step from “blaming” comes in “framing” someone else. It is simply a more active form of diverting blame.
So when I got a call from one of the national news agencies recently asking me about a New York Times article citing a new study from Israel showing the ability to “fabricate” DNA, I was not nearly as excited about it as they were. Don’t get me wrong. Every time there is an allegation that DNA is not as effective or safe or reliable as our experience tells us, we need to have a laser like focus on the question. Criminal justice systems rely heavily on DNA, and its accuracy determines the course of people’s lives, victim and criminal alike. But the allegation that some scientific laboratory—that just also happens to have a technology to determine real from manufactured DNA—can manufacture DNA, doesn’t begin to look like a game changer.
We’ve been down this road before. What about cloning? What about planting DNA? What about chimeras? What about twins? All have infinitesimal possibilities to impact the effect and benefits of DNA technology. Prosecutions rarely rely solely on DNA. Investigators use DNA and a database hit as a starting point from which other evidence is developed. And when DNA results don’t make sense or run seriously counter to other evidence, both the investigative process and the judicial process have mechanisms to ferret out erroneous or dangerous reliance on DNA. Usually the answer is more DNA testing.
One of my favorite stories about “framing” someone else with DNA comes from Wisconsin. Police had incarcerated a serial rapist who had been connected to several crimes by DNA. He was insistent, however, that the DNA tests were wrong and that the real rapist was still on the loose while he was in jail. When a rape occurred similar to the ones he was accused of and when the DNA profile matched the one attributed to him, his argument of innocence was supported. How could the DNA tests in his case be accurate if a crime committed on the “outside” contained the exact same profile when he was in jail the whole time?