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What Are They Really Doing With My DNA Sample

A lot of different agencies and universities are taking the public's DNA samples. The public really doesn't concern themselves with what is the purpose of taking their DNA. A closer look at what is the purpose might make one think twice before toweling it out so readily.

My client had an affair with a married woman whose body was later found in a county dump. The Defendant was first suspected after traces of his DNA was found on her underwear. Our DNA expert explained even if clothes are washed, sometimes traces of DNA can remain. Lucky for my client, overwhelming evidence later pointed to the husband and the charges were dismissed against my client.

Incoming students at UC Berkeley found cotton swabs in their welcome packages. The university wants students to voluntarily swab a few cells from the insides of their cheeks and give them to the University for DNA testing. A professor of Genetics and Development Biology who's overseeing the project, swears he's not trying to create a genetic database of thousands of undergraduates for any nefarious purpose. "Really, what nefarious purpose could there possibly be?" Really?

If you're arrested for a felony in California, expect to give up a DNA sample. Police departments are storing genetic samples from adults arrested for felonies, whether they go on to charge those people or not. The FBI and other states now collect DNA samples from immigrants who are detained, and some states store genetic samples from people found guilty of misdemeanors.

In Orange County, California, the District Attorney's Office will dismiss a simple misdemeanor charge, like possession of marijuana, if you give them your DNA sample. The intent is to create a large genetic database that will allow police to solve more crimes, but critics say the cumulative effect may be unconstitutional. Criminal justice experts cite the Fourth Amendment privacy concerns and worry that the nation is becoming a genetic surveillance society.

Law enforcement agencies argue that taking genetic samples is akin to routine fingerprinting. The Department of State Health Services gave 800 anonymous blood samples to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab to help create a national DNA database. I heard people say it's only used to find criminals and if you don't commit crimes you have nothing to worry about. Wrong! Here are actual cases where a person was not the perpetrator but in some cases agreed to plea because the attorney said that DNA is infallible.

In a homicide case, a Settle lab cross-contamination likely occurred when the contaminated work surface was used while testing a blood sample from a convicted felon during training. Next DNA analyst who used work station noticed contamination in chemical solution that is not supposed to contain DNA.

In a child rape case in January of 2004 in Tacoma lab, a forensic scientist failed to change gloves between handling evidence in two cases. When later he noticed contamination in chemical solution the Defendant was already convicted and sent to prison.

Another Forensic expert contaminated evidence in a King County rape case with DNA from a previous case, likely by failing to properly sterilize scissors.

In a rape/attempted murder case another expert misinterpreted DNA results, telling Seattle police their suspect was a match. Co-worker caught error 11 days later, just as charges were about to be filed.

Contamination and other errors in DNA analysis have occurred in crime labs all over the country. The list of DNA testing errors, uncovered through public-records requests and interviews with defense attorneys and experts, offers an unusual glimpse into what can go wrong. Crime lab officials here and elsewhere don't like to talk about the fact that the same test that can link someone to a crime scene with a few minuscule cells left on a doorknob can also be contaminated by a passing sneeze. Or that DNA tests are only as reliable as the humans doing them -- a troubling prospect when dealing with evidence that has the power to exonerate suspects or imprison them for life.

"The amazing thing is how many screw-ups they have for a technique that they go into court and say is infallible," said William C. Thompson, a forensic expert and professor of criminology and law at the University of California-Irvine.

Even the state-of-the-art FBI crime lab in Quantico, Va., was shaken by scandal recently when a DNA analyst, Jacqueline Blake, was caught falsifying her lab reports over a two-year period. Blake skipped an important step in her DNA tests, then lied about it.

The lesson to be learned? Avoid giving your DNA if possible because you don't have to commit a crime to be mistakenly charged or convicted of one.

AUTHOR: Cherie L. Brenner, The Brenner Law Firm, July 4, 2010

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