Buyer Beware: Gov Walker’s DNA Database Is Built On False Premises and Inexact Science.

As part of the Wisconsin Biennial 2013 – 2105 Budget recently signed by Governor Walker, there is a provision allowing collection of DNA upon the arrest of a suspect…not conviction…upon arrest!

The governor’s 2013-’15 budget bill provides about $6 million to collect DNA samples at every felony arrest and some misdemeanor arrests, as well as upon the conviction for any crime. That would lead to collecting DNA from tens of thousands more accused criminals from across the state each year.

DNA is now collected only from those convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors. But Walker has said that more than half the states in America and the federal government have expanded DNA collection efforts as a tool to fight crime.

There has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding such bills and I don’t think we have seen the last of the court challenges.

But there are more issues at hand surrounding DNA evidence that has nothing to do with it’s legality or fairness. It has to do with the limited science involved. DNA doesn’t always get it right as outlined in a recent OP Ed piece from the NY Times: High-Tech, High-Risk Forensics by OSAGIE K. OBASOGIE (a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, and a senior fellow at the Center for Genetics and Society) DNA has caused wrongful accusations against innocent suspects and has sent authorities on wild goose chases that result in no arrests. One of the most interesting from the article:

In one famous case of crime scene contamination, German police searched for around 15 years for a serial killer they called the “Phantom of Heilbronn” — an unknown female linked by traces of DNA to six murders across Germany and Austria. In 2009, the police found their “suspect”: a worker at a factory that produced the cotton swabs police used in their investigations had been accidentally contaminating them with her own DNA.

Now that story is a bit funny after you get past the fact that they wasted years looking for a serial killer who doesn’t exist.

But what does this all mean to Wisconsin? Well exactly what might happen when the state starts to amass Governor Walker’s DNA database. It might not be the be all and end all of crime solutions that many in the legislature might expect…Senator Harsdorf for example:

Of the DNA measure, Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) said: “I’m convinced that this is going to be beneficial in catching career criminals, saving lives and saving taxpayer dollars. DNA, I would say, is the new identifier of the 21st century.”

So other than contamination of evidence used in DNA identification, what could possibly go wrong? Well the science is inexact, the sampling isn’t that large, and there is still room for significant human error. Too often DNA testing is being used as the definitive evidence in courts when it should be treated like every other form of evidence…as a supporting form of evidence…one item in a chain of items used to prove guilt or determine innocence.

“… when the government gets into the business of warehousing millions of DNA profiles to seek “cold hits” as the primary basis for prosecutions, much more oversight by and accountability to the public is warranted. For far too long, we have allowed the myth of DNA infallibility to chip away at our skepticism of government’s prosecutorial power, undoubtedly leading to untold injustices.

That one piece of evidence — obtained from a technology with known limitations, and susceptible to human error and prosecutorial misuse — might mistakenly lead to execution at the hands of the state should send chills down every one of our spines.

And the chances of an incorrect match against the DNA in an existing database is considerably lower than winning the lottery or being struck by lightning…considerably lower. From the Anderson case mentioned below:

“…there was only a one-in-1.1 million chance that this DNA match was pure coincidence

But that one-in-1.1 million figure is misleading, according to two different expert committees, one convened by the F.B.I., the other by the National Research Council. It reflects the chance of a coincidental match in relation to the size of the general population (assuming that the suspect is the only one examined and is not related to the real culprit). Instead of the general population, we should be looking at only the number of profiles in the DNA database. Taking the size of the database into account…(and, again, assuming the real culprit’s profile is not in the database) would have led to a dramatic change in the estimate, to one in three.

One in three is pretty short odds to be depending your life or freedom on…don’t you think?

Read the Times article about the Lukis Anderson case…it is a little more than scary


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3 thoughts on “Buyer Beware: Gov Walker’s DNA Database Is Built On False Premises and Inexact Science.

  1. Another example of why we need a transparent, well funded, stable government that is not always looking to cut staff and services or default on expenditures.

  2. It makes me glad I don’t work in a DNA swab manufacturing facility. Aside from the risk of misidentification, there is the chance of switching samples acidentally in a lab. Nevertheless, I think you can expect more of this overuse of DNA sampling throughout the country.

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