Beyond CODIS

The changing face of forensic DNA analysis


Along with dynamic technology come questions about how it can be used. Investigators and prosecutors are quick to point out that this new application is just another tool used to solve crimes. It is the combination of new advances and standard police work that gets the job done.

In contrast to profiling, ancestry DNA analysis is factual and non-subjective.

"As with any new technology, this will be challenged in the courts, both from the admissibility in criminal trials to the civil liberty aspects," states George Schiro, DNA technical leader at the Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory. "However, the testing should provide more objective information about a perpetrator than eyewitness testimony. The admissibility issue should be a minor one, since the test will be generating investigative information."

The actual source or potential source of the DNA sample would most likely be identified using traditional, court-accepted forensic DNA typing methods. Ancestry testing also has the potential of eliminating innocent people from suspicion who might otherwise have no means of clearing themselves. This would actually preserve their civil liberties and prevent them from being wrongfully accused or convicted of a crime.

Timothy Kupferschmid, the forensic laboratory director of Sorenson Forensics, a division of Sorenson Genomics in Salt Lake City, Utah, and member of the board of directors of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, doesn't see DNA analysis as a threat to privacy.

"Taking a DNA swab from someone for the CODIS database is akin to taking their fingerprint because crime laboratories and police agencies do not have the resources, time or authority to determine sensitive information like someone's predisposition to disease," says Kupferschmid. "State and federal laws dictate the type of genetic information that can be extracted for law enforcement purposes and it is entirely for non-coding regions of the genome."

What's next?

The genetic basis for determining eye color has eluded scientists for decades. In the spring 2004 journal, "Genetics," DNAPrint first detailed a vital part of the eye color puzzle. The most recent (2007) blind validation test of samples of predominantly European ancestry exhibited 96 percent accuracy.

Thomas revealed testing and comparisons referring to face shapes, orbit distance and skin tone. "We've seen interesting trends comparing relatively crude photographs of people, not much more than a 'mugshot,' to their ancestry information. We often talk of our current technology providing a 'fuzzy photograph' of someone from his or her DNA. Now we want to bring that photo into focus. We've started to collect data using more sophisticated methods to better understand the link between genetics and physical features such as the space between the eyes, the shape of a jaw — all the things a sketch artist might want to know."

Dostie concludes, "As information about ancestry DNA gets out to cold case investigators, I think it will be embraced by them. Cold case investigators are a tenacious bunch always looking for the smallest piece of the puzzle. Ancestry DNA can provide a big piece of the puzzle."

Linda Spagnoli is a well-known law enforcement advocate in the areas of communication, child safety, officer safety and sex-offender tracking. Her focus is on interagency data sharing, emergency communications and media relations. She began her career assisting school resource officers in installing the D.A.R.E program in Long Island, New York, schools. Spagnoli maintains her position as director of communications for Code Amber, the largest Internet distribution for Amber Alerts.

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