Technological advances hold great potential to remediate some of the current weaknesses in the criminal justice system, particularly in the realm of criminal identification, which stands to increase its empirical consistency. This is not to suggest that technology makes criminalization infallible – all tools require that they be applied with a judicious understanding of their strengths and limitations – but rather curtail some of the shortcomings from what is ultimately a field whose foundation rests upon soft science.
As The Innocence Project, a national litigation and policy organization devoted to the improvement of the American criminal justice system, notes, wrongful convictions often result from a misunderstanding of the limitations of science. As Alex Steffen (2004) notes, police methodology is fraught with judgment and subjectivity; these two attributes do not necessarily invalidate the entire protocol, but they are frequently left unchecked by careful scrutiny.
For example, without proper video or audio documentation of interrogation procedures, it is impossible to review, identify and flag confessions whose results are invalidly obtained through baiting promises, coercive pressure and leading questions. Furthermore, police informants are not measured according to their reputation for providing useful or accurate information. In effect, there is a complete lack of ‘soft science’ consistency in the investigative process. One of the technologies currently under scrutiny is DNA profiling and analysis.
Like biometric analysis and surveillance technology, DNA profiling and analysis holds great value in the identification of criminals. It is currently used within the context of law enforcement in order to identify the individual from which genetic material found on a crime scene originates. The results are used to determine, based on the qualities of the genetic matter obtained, whether individuals may be considered suspect. Although DNA sequences among individuals are highly matching, the process of DNA profiling relies on variances which occur on the level of their alleles (National Institute of Justice, 2009).
But despite this level of precision, some wrongful convictions occur in spite of DNA profiling and analysis, due mostly in part to a number of confounding variables. Intra-agency databases are crucial to the efficacy of DNA profiling and analysis. In the United States, the COmbined DNA Index System or CODIS, with 5 million records as of 2007, fulfills this role. The CODIS is an electronic database of DNA profiles, quite similar to that of the AFIS or Automated Fingerprint Identification System. It holds the aggregated data of DNA profiles obtained by individual states from those convicted.
(FBI, 2009) In effect, it gives law enforcement officers quick access to a nation-wide sample of DNA profiles and assists in identifying possible suspects. However, reliance upon the CODIS and other such DNA databases can be problematic because of their dependence on past convictions. Furthermore, an imperfect application of DNA testing can have disastrous results. In the case of Herman Atkins, who was convicted of robbery, oral and genital rape, was linked to the crime on the basis of the fact that he fit the same genetic demographic of the perpetrator.
Even though it could not be proven that Atkins was inarguably the rapist, he was convicted. The prosecution admitted this as much by noting that the evidence “excludes a large percentage of the people, and does not exclude him, and that’s corroboration. ” While hair samples and semen stains are valuable evidence, it is not without thorough and comprehensive testing that they can be held as inarguable evidence of guilt, as the innocent may sometimes overlap with the perpetrator in these factors. It must be clear that concern should not center solely on wrongful convictions but the shortcomings of techniques.
While one should not blithely subscribe to an uncritical confidence in the justice system, it is also not productive to rail against injustices post hoc. Instead, what is needed is broader public education of what DNA profiling and analysis tells us. However, at the very least, DNA profiling and analysis is a step in the right direction in advancing the reliability and validity of criminology: It is most certainly not an infallible solution to the fuzzy qualities which dominate it, but it gives a human face to the statistical probability of error that has always existed within it.
REFERENCES Innocence Project: http://www. innocenceproject. org/index. php. Accessed March 5, 2009. Steffen, A. (2004, May 15). “The Innocence Project. ” Worldchanging. Retrieved March 4, 2009 from: http://www. worldchanging. com/archives//000715. html National Institute of Justice. “What Every Law Enforcement Officer Should Know About DNA Evidence. ” Retrieved March 6, 2009 from: http://www. ncjrs. gov/pdffiles1/nij/bc000614. pdf Federal Bureau of Investigation. “CODIS – National DNA Index System. ” Retrieved March 4, 2009 from: http://www. fbi. gov/hq/lab/codis/national. htm