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Crime Lab DNA Databases Under the Microscope

Researchers in the field of DNA forensics are calling for the FBI to improve the quality of its sizable genetic database by letting them look under the hood. As Osagie Obasogie explains, reviews of a handful of state crime lab DNA databases have revealed anomalies that might not make prosecutors’ claims that a crime-scene sample matching a profile in the database is “slam dunk” evidence. Genetic information is a powerful law enforcement tool—both for catching criminals and for exonerating the innocent, but both uses require robust, accurate science.

Yet quality of the information in these state-level databases is not the only urgent issue in the field. Natalie Ram presented original research last year indicating widespread variation in state rules for “partial” match searches. A partial match refers two genetic profiles that share some, though not all, of the markers used for connecting a crime-scene sample with a stored profile in the database. A partial match, Ram explains, can implicate a previous offender’s immediate family: “In effect, reporting partial matches implicitly incorporates offenders’ close genetic relatives into existing offender databases, even though these relatives have never been convicted of, or arrested for, an offense qualifying them for database inclusion.” Some states allow these searches, some states prohibit them, and for some it is unclear what the policy is at all.

She goes on to recommend that the federal government create rules for partial match searching, as well as that states make their policies explicit and publicly accessible.

In both cases, the authors argue that improved transparency will lead to better science, more effective law enforcement, and just outcomes.

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