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DNA: Tales of the Double Helix

Every officer needs to know the prosecutory potential of DNA matching and how to properly protect DNA evidence.

February 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author

Lost Expertise

The bones of victims can be very valuable repositories of DNA data. More and more unknown victims are now being identified by their DNA, as are their assailants. This is just one of the many benefits of state-of-the-art DNA matching technology.

In addition to time constraints, DNA specialist Norah Rudin notes that evidence collection and testing continue to be hampered by the inherent nature of law enforcement agencies. "Much of the problem is changeover," Rudin says. "Newbies come in, acquire a degree of familiarity with DNA collection and testing, get promoted or are transferred, and are then replaced with neophytes, and the cycle repeats itself."

George Schiro, a forensic scientist with the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory, agrees. And he adds that he would like to see police agencies place a bigger premium on crime scene training and evidence collection.

"It starts at the crime scene. Every agency should have a crime scene policy that goes from the top on down. Historically, some police agencies have had a rather cavalier approach to handling evidence, letting the layman handle pertinent evidence and hoping for the best. But I doubt that any agency would so willingly switch a guy with a SWAT background with one whose expertise is handling hazardous waste. But that is basically the philosophy many administrators seemingly embrace when it comes to handling crime scene evidence. This results in loss of evidence, damaged evidence, and excluded evidence."

The value of DNA evidence over the long haul is one of the reasons that Schiro argues that more training resources should be committed to teaching officers proper collection techniques and criminalists the latest testing procedures. "Just as field cops need to know the capabilities of their forensic labs, forensic specialists need to stay abreast of the latest trends in DNA. After all, defense lawyers are."

Jailhouse Geneticists

Technicians at private and public DNA labs face the monumental task of analyzing the millions of DNA samples that have been gathered at crime scenes and from victims since 1987.

Defense lawyers aren't alone in learning all they can about DNA evidence. Their clients are showing surprising initiative in educating themselves. Consequently, more and more sexual predators are wearing condoms, forcing their victims to bathe, and donning gear that might pass biohazard muster.

Other criminals are even using DNA matching to their advantage. Authorities in Richmond, Va., caught prisoners taking DNA tests for each other to avoid being matched to other crimes. Jailers in Salt Lake County overheard prisoners coaching each other on how to spread blood and semen samples from other people around crime scenes to try to fool DNA analysts.

And then there's Anthony Harold Turner of Milwaukee.

Turner, 33, became something of a self-taught DNA specialist. Then when he was charged with three rapes, Turner acknowledged that the genetic material taken from the victims matched his, but he argued that it must have come from another man, an unknown rapist whose genetic code was an exact match for his own.

Prosecutors scoffed at the suggestion. But while Turner was waiting to be sentenced, something astonishing happened. Against astronomical odds, police investigating a new rape compared the alleged attacker's DNA with samples from other sex crimes and found a match for Turner, a statistical improbability of about 3 trillion to one, considering that Turner was in jail.

The implications for DNA technology and admissibility were potentially dire. If Turner had been innocent all along, a miscarriage of justice had taken place and the foundation for DNA matching as forensic evidence would crumble.

Fortunately, a little digging uncovered Turner's scam. Turner had smuggled a sample of his own semen out of jail to family members who then paid a woman $50 to use the sperm to stage a phony rape. Turner was subsequently sentenced to 120 years in prison.

Turner is not the only desperate criminal to have perpetrated a DNA scam. In Montauk, NY, Kerry Kotler, a convicted rapist and kidnapper was freed in 1992 after DNA tests cast doubt on his two rape convictions. This came after Kotler's defense showed that semen from the victim could not have come from Kotler alone.

Despite protests by the prosecution that the tests left open the possibility that Kotler was the rapist, Kotler was a free man. Four years later, Kotler was charged in a new rape. This time, the victim alleged that he carried a water bottle and attempted to clean away semen after the assault. But new improved tests lifted samples of Kotler's semen from his victim's clothing and helped to convict him. Kotler, now 41, was sentenced to 7 to 21 years. Just one month earlier, he had won a $1.5 million judgment for being wrongly imprisoned in the first case.

Fortunately, such abuses are the exceptions. But whether it's defense lawyers or their clients who attempt to exploit our perceived ignorance of DNA, the fact remains that DNA has much in common with an officer's sidearm. Questions of familiarity, retention, and discretion in its deployment mean that cops have yet another tool that can be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Obviously, hurdles remain in the refinement of law enforcement's handling of DNA evidence. And courts continue to debate DNA admissibility on everything from its prejudicial value outweighing its probative value, to the standards of the lab investigating the samples. Still, you, as conscientious police officers, will have to keep up with this developing technology and its applications.

Sgt. Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s
Department and a frequent contributor to

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