177 Ethics of DNA Testing in Forensic Science and Criminal Justice

DNA analysis is used more and more in the legal justice system. It can be used to determine the biological father or the biological father. It can also be used to identify a deceased victim. For sexual violence, it can also be used to identify the assaulting criminal.

The modernization of DNA isolation and DNA sequencing techniques makes it affordable for the police, the civil justice system, and the criminal justice system to use DNA evidence. Questions arise, then, about when DNA evidence can be used and who can use it. A physician was convicted of attempted  second-degree murder by injecting his former girlfriend with HIV from one of his patients. The unique HIV mutations of the virus sequence determined that the doctor took HIV from a patient and injected it into his girlfriend. Individuals convicted of a crime have their DNA taken and analyzed for genetic markers. The FBI collects this type of information in CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). In Louisiana, there was a case (the State of Louisiana versus Franklin) that ruled a cheek swab for DNA testing is allowed even if a person is not convicted of a crime, but only arrested (State v. Franklin, 76 So. 3d 423 (La. 2011)). It also referenced that on the federal level, this was allowed and established. The federal case of U.S. v. Mitchell, 652 F.3d 387 (3d Cir. 2011) states in the court decision, “As arrestees have a diminished expectation of privacy in their identities, and DNA collection from arrestees serves important law enforcement interests, we conclude that such collection is reasonable and does not violate the Fourth Amendment.”

In another case from Louisiana, familial DNA searching was used. If the DNA found at a crime scene doesn’t lead to a suspect in a DNA database, a DNA search for biological family members related to the found DNA of unknown identity can be done. This search has solved some cases, including a cold case of the “Golden State” killer. Some news reports also indicate some problems. According to a newspaper report from New Orleans, a New Orleans film maker was called via phone by police to answer questions about a hit and run. Upon return to his home in New Orleans, two law enforcement persons from Idaho and allegedly a third federal agent waited for the film maker, interviewed him, and took a cheek swab. Familial DNA search led to these events, according to the newspaper article (Jim Mustian. New Orleans filmmaker cleared in cold-case murder; false positive highlights limitations of familial DNA searching. see section further reading). DNA from a murder victim in Idaho did not turn up a suspect with matching DNA. However, familial DNA searching led to the DNA of the father of the film maker. The father’s DNA had enough DNA similarities, suggesting family relationships to the unidentified murder suspect’s DNA. The father’s DNA was entered as part of a church initiative. The DNA information was stored by a foundation whose information was acquired by a for-profit company specializing in genealogy. The DNA of the film maker’s father was too different to be the murder suspect, but the law enforcement entities determined that the son—that is, the New Orleans film maker—could be the murder suspect, according to the newspaper article. The film maker experienced more stressful times until he was cleared. The actual murderer was finally found.

Ethics questions:

  • When should DNA samples be taken? Should they be taken from convicted criminals of non-violent crimes or violent crimes? Should they be taken from suspects? Should they be taken from anyone arrested?
  • How long should the genetic information be used? Only for the specific incident, arrest, law suit, civil case, criminal case or for 1 year, 10 years, a life time?
  • Who should have access to the genetic information? Only the prosecutor, defendant, defense attorney, law enforcement personnel on the specific case,  a special DNA unit, the police in the state of the individual, or any law enforcement person in the US?
  • Should the collected DNA also be used for other purposes than originally intended? Should DNA for identification purposes also be used to identify relatives, genetic diseases, or a possible “phenotype” of a person?

Further reading

Metzker, M. L., Mindell, D. P., Liu, X. M., Ptak, R. G., Gibbs, R. A., & Hillis, D. M. (2002). Molecular evidence of HIV-1 transmission in a criminal case. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 99(22), 14292–14297. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.222522599 accessed for free via https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC137877/

Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). Federal Bureau of Investigation.  https://www.fbi.gov/services/laboratory/biometric-analysis/codis accessed 4/21/2022

State v. Franklin, 76 So. 3d 423 (La. 2011)

U.S. v. Mitchell, 652 F.3d 387 (3d Cir. 2011)

New Orleans filmmaker cleared in cold-case murder; false positive highlights limitations of familial DNA searching. Jim Mustian. Published Mar 12, 2015 at 7:20 am | Updated Nov 21, 2019 at 8:24 pm https://www.nola.com/article_d58a3d17-c89b-543f-8365-a2619719f6f0.html

The murder of Angie Dodge. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Angie_Dodge accessed 4/21/2022


Understanding Familial DNA Searching: Policies, Procedures, and Potential Impact, Summary Overview. Sara Debus-Sherrill, Michael B. Field. Office of Justice Programs’ National Criminal Justice Reference

Service. https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/251043.pdf

Guilty until proven innocent: the failure of DNA evidence. Jospeh Goldstein. J.D. candidate 2020. Drexel university. https://drexel.edu/~/media/Files/law/law%20review/v12-3/Goldstein%2012%20Drexel%20L%20Rev%20597.ashx  accessed 4/21/2022


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