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The Database Dilemma

Tue, 12/01/2009 - 3:00am
Chris Asplen

The past several months have been full of contrasts and contradictions. We have seen fascinating cases solved illustrating the incredible effectiveness of forensic DNA technology. We have seen legal cases filed illustrating the fear of DNA’s expanded use. Governments have announced intentions for national expansion and for the first time a government has announced it will reduce the scope of inclusion in its database. And, after years of legislative discussion and debate, we have seen some countries finally pass DNA legislation and begin to recognize its benefits while others continue to struggle with practical and political issues preventing the implementation of law enforcement’s most effective crime fighting tool.

On August 10, 1990, Jennifer Schuett, age 8, was abducted from her bedroom, driven to a remote location, sexually assaulted, and her throat was slit from ear to ear. She was left for dead. She could not scream. Her voice box was severed. Over 12 hours later, she was discovered by children playing in a nearby field. Never giving up, the police of the Dickinson Police Department sought the help of the FBI and evidence was sent for advanced DNA testing. The extracted DNA profile matched a Dennis Bradford. On October 7, 2009, Dickinson police issued a warrant for his arrest.

On the same day, October 7, 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action law suit challenging California’s Arrestee DNA database statute. The challenge is to California’s law, Proposition 69, which passed overwhelmingly, not by the state legislature but by popular referendum vote in 2004.

For the first time a country is going backwards in terms of the nature and extent to which it maintains DNA profiles in its National Database—albeit, not voluntarily. The Home Office in the United Kingdom has announced that, in compliance with the European Court of Human Rights decision in S and Marper vs. the UK, it will no longer seek to retain the profiles of those individuals arrested but not ultimately convicted. Approximately 850,000 such profiles that exist on the database may not be there for very much longer.

In contrast to the UK’s “climb down,” police and forensics experts from across the United Arab Emirates met on September 30, 2009, to consider setting up a nationwide DNA database that could include every resident of the UAE. At present, DNA samples are taken only from convicted criminals or suspects. “What we would like is to start thinking about taking samples from all of the UAE population, local and expatriate,” said Dr Ahmed Marzooqi, the chairman of the Emirates DNA Working Group, who acknowledged that the project could take a decade. Acknowledging the potential role such a database would have for use in natural disasters and missing persons cases, Dr.Marzooqi also said, “This will control crime drastically. It will reduce the number of unnecessary and innocent suspects and reveal the criminal much faster with scientific proof.”

There are also contrasts in legislative efforts around the world. After years of debate and discussion about establishing a DNA database in Italy, and with the intent of joining the information sharing Prüm Treaty, the Italian government has finally passed legislation for a crime fighting database that will include arrestees and convicted offenders for all intentional crimes (excluding financial offenses). For arrestees and suspects, the sample collection will be authorized by the judge.

The South African Government continues to struggle with Constitutional, logistical, and resource considerations that must be resolved before legislation can be passed and a database established. Consideration of the Forensic Amendment Bill has now been split into two phases. The first phase will address the fingerprint database’s legal and practical infrastructures. The second phase, which will address the DNA database, will not be considered until February/March 2010. Given the level of violent crime in South Africa, time is indeed an enemy there.

Finally, a contrast which, for those of us working to truly maximize DNA’s crime fighting potential in the United States, is more than a little illustrative.

The laboratory in Bagdad, Iraq, is up and running. While its primary function appears to be the identification of human remains for those killed in the extensive violence there, DNA is also being used increasingly as a powerful weapon in their criminal justice system. In a recent interview with CNN, Dr. Amera Omar, the laboratory’s director talked about progress the lab was making and the importance of DNA in bringing peace and closure to victims. At the end of the piece, the reporter mentioned that in spite of the anxiety felt by family members and victims, they would have to wait at least 10 days for DNA results to identify their loved ones.

Now I can list the hundred plus reasons why it takes 10 days in Bagdad and more like six months in the U.S., but, seriously, they are turning cases around in 10 days in Iraq.

The issue here is not what scientists in Bagdad, a country ripped apart every single day by violence, can accomplish. No doubt, those accomplishments are the result of a massive infusion of U.S. resources and expertise. Rather, the issue clarified by the contrasting processing speed is what we in the U.S. are failing to do for our own victims of violence.

Chris Asplen is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and local prosecutor specializing in the prosecution of sex crime and child abuse. He was also formerly the Executive Director of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence for the U.S. Department of Justice and Director of the DNA Unit for the National District Attorneys Association. Currently, he consults with local, state, and foreign governments and law enforcement agencies on the use of forensic DNA technology. Chris is also a member of the Crime Victim Bar Association.

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