Archive for the ‘Breakthroughs’ Category

The use of DNA identification as a forensic tool, beginning in 1989, changed the way that we think about guilt, innocence, and traditional police investigation.  It isn’t just the 311 wrongful convictions that DNA identification has confirmed; it’s the far more numerous cases in which DNA has determined guilt — sometimes in cases years or decades old.

Now DNA identification is about to change: it will become even more powerful than it is now.  A new way of processing and interpreting DNA has arrived that will make our current DNA techniques look weak by comparison.

On Friday, Nov. 8, I attended an incredibly interesting talk by Dr. Ria David.  Dr. David is one of the co-founders of Cybergenetics, a company based in Pittsburgh.  Cybergenetics has perfected computer-based techniques and technologies that will change the way that DNA is analyzed.  With Cybergenetics’ TrueAllele (R) system, the analysis relies the power of computers instead of interpretation done by humans.   The talk was sponsored by the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship (CWE) at Chatham University.  (Disclosure: my wife runs CWE; my wife and I know Dr. David and her Cybergenetics co-founder, Dr. Mark Perlin, but neither my wife nor I have any personal or financial ties of any kind to Cybergenetics.)

Most of us know that a DNA sample allows forensic scientists to say things like “the odds that this sample came from anyone other than the defendant are fifty million to one.”  Pretty powerful stuff — until you learn that Cybergenetics’ systems will allow prosecutors to offer juries odds of not tens of millions to one, but trillions or even quadrillions to one.  In addition, Cybergenetics will allow analysts to pull apart mixtures of DNA from different people, which is common at crime scenes, and which current DNA technology often can’t handle.  Readers of my book Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science can get a little more information in Chapter 7, pp. 186-190; you can get the book here.

Cybergenetics’ DNA system has found ready acceptance in the United Kingdom, but the process has been slower in the U.S. There has been considerable resistance — something readers of Failed Evidence are quite familiar with — particularly at the FBI, which governs current DNA protocols and use.

There is much more to how the Cybergenetics’ TrueAllele system works, and what it can do; I’d urge readers to take a good look at Cybergenetics web site, which gives details on what they do, and the many criminal cases and mass disaster identification cases (including the identification of remains at the World Trade Center site).  Once law enforcement sees what this new method of using DNA can do, and once resistance to change is overcome, DNA will be able to identify many more guilty criminals, as well as exonerate many more of the wrongfully convicted, and it will do so with more certainty that we ever thought possible.


From The Crime Report, I learned that the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) gathered 70 experts from various disciplines to discuss wrongful convictions at a summit meeting last week in Alexandria, Virginia.  In his August 22 story, Ted Gest tells us “wrongful convictions worry cops,” and that the IACP called the summit to address the problem.

Given the subtitle of my book Failed Evidence — “Why Law Enforcement Resists Science” — the IACP’s interest in addressing issues that lead to wrongful convictions could be the beginning of very important changes in police attitudes and practices.  What’s behind it?

According to Walter McNeil, IACP’s President and Chief of Police of Quincy, Florida, said that police must pay attention to wrongful convictions, even if they are small in number because the damage they do to everyone involved is “irreversible.”  In an article in the IACP’s Police Chief magazine, Chief McNeil continued:

The damage goes beyond the wrongfully convicted citizen; it hurts all those involved in the case, including law enforcement and prosecutorial staff, families of the wrongfully accused, the victim of the original crime in question, and the public at large when justice is not carried out and the true guilty individual is not arrested and punished.

To this end, the summit featured working groups on “Making Rightful Arrests,” “Correcting a Wrongful Arrest,” “Technology and Forensic Issues” and “Reexamination of Closed Cases.”  This is not a bad list of places to start; if I could have made a list of ten possible topics, these four would have made it.

I did not attend the summit; it was not open to the public.  But the IACP says it will use the proceedings at the summit to issue a set of recommendations.  So while I can’t offer first-hand reporting on what went on, I find myself encouraged by the fact that the summit took place at all, and I commend the IACP for their interest in these issues.

So: could the IACP, one of the oldest and most established law enforcement professional groups in the world, become the vanguard of a movement in law enforcement to stop resisting science?

Fingers crossed.  I’d love to hear from anyone who was there.





Today’s New York Times gives us the latest chapter in how New Jersey has overcome law enforcement’s usual resistance to science.  In “New Jersey Court Issues Guidance for Juries About Reliability of Eyewitnesses,” we learn that the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued instructions for trial judges to give to jurors in cases in which eyewitness testimony plays a role.  These new instructions, which take effect on Sept. 4, reflect much of the best of what science has long told us about the fallibility of eyewitness identification.  At least in New Jersey, science has broken through law enforcement resistance.  For example, the Times quotes from the instructions on one of the most common misunderstandings jurors have of eyewitness testimony.

“Human memory is not foolproof,” the instructions say. “Research has revealed that human memory is not like a video recording that a witness need only replay to remember what happened. Memory is far more complex.”

The instructions also cover the difficulties of cross-racial identification, the time elapsed between an incident witnessed and the identification procedure, and how police officer behavior during the procedure might influence the outcome.

The new instruction follow the New Jersey Supreme Court landmark decision last year in the Henderson case, in which the court declared that it would treat as mandatory the state attorney general’s guidelines  for eyewitness identification issued in 2001 .

Law professor Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia, author of the excellent and influential book “Convicting the Innocent,” points out in the Times article that the instructions are “far from perfect,” but also calls them “a remarkable road map for how you explain eyewitness memory to jurors.”   Professor Garrett is right on both counts, but I would emphasize the second one.  These new instructions solidify New Jersey’s place at the forefront of the effort to reform eyewitness identification procedures.

Chapter 7 of Failed Evidence contains the complete story of how New Jersey broke through the usual law enforcement resistance to science.  You can read it when the book is published by NYU Press on September 12, 2012.