DNA invloving Police investigation

With the dawn of the 21st century upon us, the study of modern genetics has accelerated in all areas of science. The overload of the Internet, television, newspapers and other media sources has meant that the majority of the public have a brief understanding of DNA, or at least the concept that it exists. This assignment looks at the history of forensic DNA, discusses a high profile case, which has used DNA as part of evidence and looks at current government policies and legislation regarding the use of it in today’s society.

HISTORY Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is commonly referred to as “the blueprint of life” and carries hereditary information that an organism requires to function (www. Impc. edu). Dr Edmond Locard (1877-1966) formulated the basic principle of forensic science: “Every Contact Leaves a Trace”. He was particularly interested in the transfer of material between two bodies when they interact with one another. The transfer can then be used to establish a relationship between a person and a particular time and place. (Newburn, et al 2007).

One of the most important advances in police work since the fingerprint has been the discovery of DNA profiling, which was discovered twenty-five years ago by academic Alec Jeffreys. He found that certain regions of DNA were highly variable between individuals (Gill et al. 1985, Jeffreys and Wilson 1985, Jeffreys et al. 1985b). Analysis of these polymorphic regions of DNA produced a “DNA fingerprint”. 1 Today this is more commonly referred to as a DNA “profile. ” The DNA profiling technique was initially applied to paternity testing in the U. K and in 1985 at the request of the Home Office it was used to resolve an immigration case (Jeffreys et al. 1985a).

THE CASE OF COLIN PITCHFORK The first successful prosecution in the U. K. where DNA evidence played a central role was the Colin Pitchfork case in January 1988. Two women had been raped and murdered over a 3-year period. Using his DNA technique Dr Jeffreys compared semen samples from both murders against a blood sample, which conclusively proved that both girls were killed by the same man (www. forensic. gov. uk).

The police undertook the world’s first DNA intelligence-led screen. 5,000 men in the surrounding area of the murders were asked to provide blood or saliva samples, today this would be referred to as a “biological evidence dragnet”(Gaensslen, et al 2008). Finally Pitchfork was arrested, his DNA was taken and the profile, matched with the semen from both murders. Pitchfork admitted the two murders and received two life sentences (Fridell, 2001 cited in Pepper, 2005 p. 58).


The National DNA Database (NDNAD) holds DNA samples obtained at crime scenes and samples taken from individuals whilst in custody (www. homeoffice. gov. uk). Whilst in custody a buccal swab is used inside the mouth to obtain DNA. This method is used because it is efficient, less personal and doesn’t require a high pain threshold, unlike plucking hair roots from various parts of the body. 2 The UK NDNAD was setup in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1995. This database originally stored profiles of any men or women who were convicted of crimes.

Since the Human Rights Act (1998) brought the rights agreed upon in the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, the balance between the privacy of an individual and interests such as national security, crime prevention and freedom of expression has been thrust into the public eye. The Criminal Justice and Police Act (2001) allowed DNA to be retained from people charged with an offence, even if they were subsequently acquitted, furthermore The Criminal Justice Act (2003) allowed DNA to be taken at the point of arrest, which could be a contributing factor as to why the databases figures have risen dramatically in recent years.

“The number of DNA profiles held on the DNA database increased by 40% between 2007 and 2009 and has now topped 4. 5 million”. (www. liberty-human-rights. org. uk) According to Howard Safir, NYC Police Commissioner, (1999) there are advantages of DNA data banking arrestees. Most major crimes involve Persistent prolific offenders (PPO), therefore identifying offenders would become easier. Investigators would be able to compare other cases against the arrested person’s DNA profile, just as with fingerprints.

This would enable previous unsolved cases ‘cold cases’ to be reopened and looked at. Samples taken at time of arrest rather than conviction allow innocent people currently incarcerated for crimes, excluded early in the investigative process and save time and money in the process. By 2003 the database held the DNA profiles of over 2 million people (Pepper, 2005) and In 2009 The UK National Database is the largest, per head of population, of any country in the world, with almost 10% of the population on the database (www.

accessexcellence. org) Liberty are a group, that voice a concern with these figures and how the government and police amongst others strike the balance between intelligence and human rights. “The database contains DNA profiles of many who have never been charged, let alone convicted, with any offence”. (www. liberty-human-rights. org. uk) . 3 In 2008 the European Court of Human Rights sided with libertys views and stated that “Retaining indefinately the DNA and fingerprint records of unconvicted suspects is unlawful”(news. bbc. co. uk)

The 17 judges recommended that the UK follow Scotlands example and delete profiles once the person is cleared or not prosecuted thus bringing the UK in line with other European Council members views. The former deputy leader of the Labour party Harriet Harman used the phrase “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” and argued the case for the NDNAD, stating that the database would combat rapists, who are often prolific offenders and therefore keeping the details of certain men, will protect women.

“There is no reason why the DNA of everyone should not ultimately be kept on record” (Blair, T. 2006) This was in response to claims that the Government had little regard for civil liberty, justice and that it was discriminatory. Williams and Johnson, 2008 suggest that there will be an excessive amount of sampling within ethnic communities on the assumption that the suspect population will be engaged in future criminal activity. This is backed up by the Black Police Association who have called an inquiry into why the database holds details of 37% of black men but less than 10% of white (bbc. news. co. uk).

They also argue that the Police see the breakthrough of DNA profiling as an effect management of crime and social control. CONCLUSION The way in which we as a nation use DNA continues to evolve. The government argue that the NDNAD acts as a deterrent, enables police to be more efficient and will make Britain a safer place to live in the future. 4 The arguments persist that it breaches basic human rights, civil liberties and discriminates against ethnic minorities and previous offenders.

Alec Jefferies ironically makes a valid point that if you store the profiles of the entire UK population, managed by an independent body, then the issue of discrimination disappears because we are all in the same boat. Problems could arise when these samples get into the wrong hands and could be used by an insurance company to blackball a person who is known to have a genetic defect. In the future, predicting the skin colour and facial characteristics from human samples will be next step in the history of forensics. The role it plays in the use of criminal investigation has yet to be decided.

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