Tuesday, April 22, 2008

DNA Developments

The Washington Post is reporting on new developments in forensic DNA.

GENES AND JUSTICE The Second Generation
Rick Weiss, DNA Tests Offer Deeper Examination Of Accused: Biological, Emotional States Scrutinized, Wash. Post, April 20, 2008, at A01

The article discusses applications in both civil and criminal cases. Should a toxic tort defendant be able to show via genetic testing that the plaintiff would have been likely to get cancer even without the pollution? Should prosecutors bring in evidence that a defendant has a propensity to violence? Should the court measure damages in part by genetically-informed estimates of life expectance?

Rick Weiss, Where Genetic Influences Leave off and State of Mind Takes Over, Wash. Post, April 20, 2008, at A17.

Dwuan D. June, You Be the Judge, Wash. Post, April 20, 2008. This sidebar relates two hypothetical situations posed in a survey of federal and state judges asking whether they'd admit the genetic information -- first, a marker for susceptibility to schizophrenia (in a criminal case where the defendant argues insanity) and second, a marker for heightened sensitivity to pain (in a civil case where the plaintiff wants higher damages).

The original study, by two professors at the University of Maryland, was published in Science: Diane E. Hoffmann and Karen H. Rothenberg, When Should Judges Admit or Compel Genetic Tests?, 310 Science 241 (2005). The six hypos in their survey are here.

GENES AND JUSTICE Mining the Database
Ellen Nakashima, From DNA of Family, a Tool to Make Arrests, Wash. Post, April 21, 2008, at A01. The subtitle -- Privacy Advocates Say the Emerging Practice Turns Relatives Into Genetic Informants -- says a lot.

Law enforcement is often using relatives' DNA to zero in on a suspect. For instance, officers investigating a serial murder suspected one man. They got a court order for his daughter's Pap smear sample, test it, and found that it matched the perpetrator's DNA (consistent with a father-daughter relationship). In a case in England, the DNA of someone arrested for drunk driving led to her brother, who was convicted of serial rapes.

Familial searching of offender databases would be of no use "if close relatives didn't commit crimes," said Frederick Bieber, a medical geneticist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

"For reasons we don't understand, there is often a familial clustering in crime," he said. "This could relate to organized crime families, to street gangs, or it could be dysfunctional family units." He pointed to a 1999 Department of Justice study that found 46 percent of prison inmates had at least one close relative who had been incarcerated.

Behind that statistic is another troubling set of numbers, highlighting an issue at the heart of the debate over familial searching: racial justice. The national database, which is made up mostly of state contributions, has a disproportionate number of DNA profiles from non-whites.

Stanford University law professor Henry T. Greely estimates that at least 40 percent of the FBI database is African American, though they make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. That is because in an average year, more than 40 percent of people convicted of felonies in the United States are African American, he said.

If the national database were used for familial searching, he said, and assuming that on average each person whose profile in the database has five first-degree relatives, authorities would be "putting under surveillance" roughly a third of the African American population, compared with about 7.5 percent of the European American population, he said.

Graphic: DNA model from Genes—What We Knew, Know, and Hope to Learn Fact Sheet, NIH National Institute of General Medical Science

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