There has been an interesting ruling in the Maryland Court of Appeals recently, where the court reversed the conviction of a Salisburyman sentenced to life in prison for a 2003 rape case just because, it was alleged, the DNA sample which put him behind bars was obtained “illegally”. Well you can imagine the law enforcement and DNA lobby being up in arms in total disgust, while the American Civil Liberties Union ACLU is delighted with the 5-2 ruling. The Police in fact obtained King’s DNA profile when he was arrested in 2009 for unrelated first- and second-degree assault charges and was properly convicted for those offenses. A DNA sample was taken from King at the time of his 2009 arrest, and when the information was entered in the state DNA database, the evidence linked him to a second 2003 rape case. The second conviction ensured he would stay in jail a good while longer!
Now personally I have always found it bizarre that juries, who are often deciding on a knives’ edge whether or not someone is guilty of a serious crime, are not allowed to know about any previous convictions for similar offences committed by the accused.
I understand how this is meant to keep individuals objective and impartial about the case in front of them while on jury duty. But I can’t help thinking such ‘in the dark’ jurors must feel pretty sick, when they find out later from the media that the accused got away with a similar offenses in the past and may endanger future lives while back on the streets because of their decision based on an incomplete picture of the accused’s past.
So even though I have been campaigning for more than 5 years about the removal of DNA profiles of innocents from UK NDAD, in effect a crime data base, I have less of a problem with the police running a brief check against this same data base during the brief window of opportunity that exists after a justifiable arrest for certain listed serious crimes only. Not for misdemeanors mind you! I also feel strongly that when the police clearly must have realised they got the wrong end of the stick, or a court tells them so with a ‘not guilty’ verdict, they should without delay restore the presumption of innocence for the wrongly arrested that exists for all other citizens. They should also issue sincere apologies and not act like sore losers out to get the falsely accused at some future time. That only loses them respect from the communities they are meant to serve and often confirms their small minded prejudices against such communities. There is a reason why ethnic minorities are over represented in police DNA data bases and it’s not because they statistically commit more crimes!
It is a good thing this Maryland case seems to be headed for a review by the U.S. Supreme Court, for what could be a landmark decision. I hope that when the dust is settled, the baby will not be thrown out with the bath water in America. DNA is a useful forensic tool, but it can also be a dangerous tool in the hands of lazy or prejudiced law enforcement personnel and over-ambitious right wing politicians. Especially those who have seen too many episodes of CSI and think it’s all true….
Fact is all biometric identity systems become less effective the more records you load in them. They become diluted, as more marginal criminals or even innocent people are included in it. There are more opportunities for error; the larger the database gets, the greater the chances are of ‘false positives’ and partial matches with innocent people.” If you don’t believe me enter the search term ‘Birthday Paradox‘ in WikiPedia and read up on the mathematical explanation for this phenomenon. Never trust people who say something is 100% reliable. When people are involved human mistakes are easily made as we are starting to see with some spectacular recent DNA police blunders.