A critique of the criminal justice system’s overreliance on forensic DNA, focused on legal and scientific questions underlying the topic’s CSI glamour.
Since “DNA analysis has closed innumerable cases that otherwise might have gone unsolved,” writes Murphy (Law/New York Univ.), “…no one likes to admit that even a savior can have flaws.” Yet, law enforcement continually expands its reliance on forensic DNA; agencies now routinely run crime scene evidence against the national database, resulting in more clearances but also many false positives. As Murphy notes, "new technologies have vastly improved technicians' ability to wrest typeable results from old and degraded samples, but those results are often more contestable." Furthermore, the courts have "turned a blind eye on DNA methods that push the envelope of lawful investigative tactics, including surreptitious sampling [and] dragnets," the extent of which are generally concealed. California popularized the use of "familial" DNA searches following the apprehension of a serial killer, the "Grim Sleeper”; such searches have since been used to indict relatives of sexual assault victims in unrelated crimes. Murphy discusses many instances of incompetence, malfeasance, or overreach in crime labs. Although "DNA databases are not meant to be played like Go Fish" by law enforcement, she argues that police are generally more focused on entering new profiles into their systems than in addressing evidence backlogs. Local law enforcement often keeps "rogue databases" without consistent oversight, and private companies have been moving into this potentially lucrative field as well, despite obvious civil liberty concerns. The author concludes with policy proposals for reforming the chaotic DNA policy landscape, noting that "America's forensic laboratory system is wholly decentralized, with dramatic variation in quality…[many] are understaffed, under-resourced, and overtaxed.” Murphy writes authoritatively but focuses too much on scientific and legal minutiae, resulting in a study that lay readers may find difficult to penetrate.
A specialized work that will appeal to attorneys, investigators, crime writers, and others on the frontiers of forensic DNA laws and technologies.