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DNA and Human Trafficking

Wed, 08/28/2013 - 4:01am
Chris Asplen

Given its history, the time has come for an aggressive commitment to leverage DNA technology in the context of human trafficking. A scourge unrivaled in the world in its scope, heinousness, and complexity, human trafficking is getting worse, not better.What is the single best evidence available to exonerate those who have been wrongly convicted? DNA, right. And what is the most effective mechanism for solving cold cases? Right again, DNA. (And the CODIS database.) And, what evidence do juries inevitably look for, even in a violation of the Uniform Commercial Code case? You are three for three, DNA. And while DNA is not the only evidence with the power to combat the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and protect the innocent, absent it, the Innocence Project would not exist. And no, DNA databases are not the only avenue to solving old cases, but the explosion of cold case units—and cold case TV shows—would never have occurred if DNA databases did not make it a valuable proposition to analyze old evidence for DNA, upload the profile, and wait. And while DNA evidence is usually only one piece of evidence in a prosecutor’s case, it is the one bit of forensic evidence designated by the National Academy of Sciences as the “Gold Standard” for forensic science.

These transformative applications of forensic DNA technology did not come easily or without controversy, and even a fair dose of hypocrisy. For as hard as prosecutors fought for the evidentiary admission of DNA, for years they automatically objected to any postconviction application of it for fear that the flood gates of appeal would open and bring the criminal justice system to a screeching halt. Similarly, while those fighting for postconviction DNA tests had to find ways around statutes of limitations for appeal, they were the first to object to changes in statutes of limitations to file charges in the first place. Apparently, “justice” demanded eliminating the statutes for those wrongly convicted, but they lacked the same zeal for “justice” deserved by the victims of crimes occurring too long ago. The reliability, the probative value, and the legal admissibility of DNA was all relative and determined by one’s role in the adversarial system. Whether you were a prosecutor, defense attorney, police officer, public laboratory scientist, or private expert determined whether you wanted DNA in or out.

But today, you probably won’t find a prosecutor who, simply as a matter of course, will refuse a postconviction test. There are plenty who disagree with the defense attorney’s opinion of the probative value of a DNA test in a given case, but not generally with the potential value of DNA in postconviction contexts. Similarly, states all across the country, in recognition of the value of DNA to older, unsolved cases, have changed their statutes of limitation to allow for the solving of those cases years later. And no defense attorney objects to DNA as scientifically reliable, the issue is now whether or not proper procedures were followed.

The history of the integration of DNA into investigative, prosecutorial, judicial, and exonerative contexts is filled with objections, legal hurdles, financial constraints, agency territorialism, and steep learning curves. But in every instance the outcome has been nothing less than transformative. Given its history, the time has come for an aggressive commitment to leverage DNA technology in the context of human trafficking. A scourge unrivaled in the world in its scope, heinousness, and complexity, human trafficking is getting worse, not better. At a profit margin of $32 billion a year, second in magnitude only to trafficking of illegal drugs, as many as 27 million men, women, and children are victims of modern slavery.

Prior to the internet, someone with deranged proclivities towards having sex with young girls in Costa Rica, Bangladesh, or Thailand would have to investigate the idea over a long period of time, dealing with unseemly people found in obscure references in coded language in the back page ads of magazines, found in stores only adults can go into. It would take time, effort, and contact with disgusting human beings consistent with the disgusting nature of the endeavor. But today, the slightest inclination toward engaging in “sexual tourism” with trafficked preteens can be piqued, researched, escorts selected, flights booked, and hotels reserved in ten minutes. And never once having to deal with the evil on the other end of process. You might as well be going to Disneyland. And that is only one form of human trafficking.

But there is an increasing convergence of experience and technology that points toward the unacceptability of failing to do more. While attending the 8th meeting of the International Society of Applied Biological Sciences, I had lunch with Tim Palmbach, a former Major with the Connecticut State Police in charge of the Division of Scientific Services and current Chair of the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice & Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven. Tim has committed to working with a few anti-trafficking NGO’s to pilot the integration of DNA technology into their efforts to combat trafficking in the sex trade industry. As he pointed out in his presentation at the conference, we are improving our ability to deploy forensic procedures such as DNA analysis in “remote and dangerous environments” through our U.S. military experience, specifically the United States Armed Criminal Investigation Laboratory (USACIL). Surely, we can attack this problem with the same ferocity. The emergence of Rapid DNA technology will also play a role here. As the technology advances, the speed and portability of Rapid instrumentation will increase the ability to identify individuals quickly and accurately.

And there are certainly other pilot projects currently doing significant work in this area. I’ve written before about the work that DNA-Prokids is doing around the world (www.dna-prokids.org) on the issue of human trafficking. Pioneers like Jose Lorente, at the University of Granada and Arthur Eisenberg at the University of North Texas Health Science Center offer one example of what is possible. But we need to get quickly past the pioneering stage and on to the full implementation stage, where we leverage DNA to give a voice to victims, investigate trafficking patterns, and identify any number of players in this hideous web. There are still plenty of pilot programs to be established and learned from, like what Tim Palmbach is doing. We need to determine where and how to best engage our resources and technology. But now is the time to make the investment in that learning process.

In their article “Brave New World of Human-rights DNA Collection” (highlighted by this magazine last May) authors Joyce Kim and Sara Katsanis point out that, “If ever there is a righteous application for DNA, it is the identification of victims of crime and human-rights violations.” They then go on to conclude their paper with a list of the hurdles, complications, legal objections, privacy concerns, and cultural difficulties that may inhibit the use of DNA to fight back the tide of man’s inhumanity that is human trafficking. I don’t disagree with them. But we’ve seen this before—every time we’ve ventured toward a new application of the technology. I don’t know what portion of those 27 million victims can be helped by doing what we do every day, all over the world with DNA. But I do know it’s a very big number. It’s a number large enough that it demands our community: the scientists, attorneys, investigators, government officials, policy makers, and private industry to commit to do more—much more, and to do it much more quickly.

Chris Asplen is President of Asplen and Associates, LLC. He consults with local, state, federal, and international governments on the use of forensic DNA technology. chrisasplen@gmail.com

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